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27 December 2020

posted Jan 4, 2021, 9:52 AM by Cameron Hubanks

Zwingli United Church of Christ

Paoli, Wisconsin

27 December 2020

Habakkuk 3:17-19a, Romans 8:28, 31-39


Though the Fig Tree Does Not Blossom


Prelude – Becky


Good morning!  Welcome to worship with the people of Zwingli United Church of Christ in Paoli, Wisconsin.  Even though we are separated by time and place – or perhaps by the windows and doors of our individual automobiles, if you are listening to this from the parking lot! – we are still one people by the miracle of God’s one uniting Spirit.  To be clear, it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey – YOU are welcome here.  Thanks for joining us!


Worship this morning is just a little bit different for all of us.  This is the last worship service I’ll lead and the last sermon I’ll deliver as your pastor.  Even though I’m certainly ready to be heading into full retirement, I feel a bit melancholy this morning.  You – all of you! – have become precious to me.  I will miss you.  Even though we will only see each other infrequently from now on – I will still be paying attention to Zwingli Church.  Thank you for sharing these past two and half years with Ruby and me.


Part of what has endeared you to me, is the gracious way you have embraced my spiritual leadership.  I have suggested that the faith is a world upsetting matter and many of you have nodded and thought or said, “Indeed.”  I’ve not given much credence to cultural Christianity – the idea that “God and country” easily go together is not an idea I’ve been willing to embrace.  Instead, I’ve suggested that faith is about following Jesus – a non-American guy whose skin color and social standing would probably mark him quite clearly as an outsider if he were to show up here some Sunday morning.  Sunday after Sunday we’re started worship by singing a prayer – a prayer for eyes and ears to be opened to Jesus – the one who would lead us into life and joy and forgiveness and justice and especially love.  Please sing that song with me one more time:


Open Our Eyes, Lord – Becky


Please pray with me:  As has been true for ages, we gather this Sunday because your Son, Jesus the Christ, offers life and we know how deeply we long for life.  Meet us in the words and music of this service and draw our spirits to your Spirit, we pray, Amen.


Our opening hymn this morning is an affirmation of God’s gracious and never-failing care.  It states in words set to music what our texts affirm in poetry.  Listen to these assertions from the well-loved hymn, “Great Is They Faithfulness.”


Great Is Thy Faithfulness – 72 (verses 1 & 2)


Decades ago, when I was a very young and inexperienced pastor, I studied the small, Old Testament book of Habakkuk for the first time.  I no longer recall what minor crisis I was facing at the time – what I remember was my awe at the message of this otherwise unknown prophet.  Here was a man who cried out to God for something he thought surely a just God would grant.  God responded, all right, but not at all as Habakkuk had assumed he would and should.  This message has stuck with me for decades of ministry – God is good, but God will not necessarily do what I think God should do.  Praise be to God!  The short text I will read is only Habakkuk’s closing affirmation of faith – in the sermon I will attempt to explain why that affirmation is so stunning!


Habakkuk 3:17-19


There is a second text I am going to read.  It is a far more familiar than is the first text.  These words are taken from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome.  These words are theologically deep and filled with comfort.  They are addressed to a people for whom life has become exquisitely difficult.  They have spoken to and comforted millions.  Perhaps they will do the same for you and for me!


Romans 8:28, 31-39


Gracious God, you promise to be present when two or more gather in the name of your Son.  May your presence with us today give us the courage to walk with faith in the midst of difficulty and loss.  Give us joy against all odds.  This we pray in the beloved name of Jesus, Amen!


Habakkuk was outraged, and he had good reason for his outrage.  Unlike folk today who fuel outrage based on fear and resentment, Habakkuk’s outrage was built on a genuinely moral foundation.  Habakkuk was possessed of a deep commitment to the ways of God’s justice.  Habakkuk grasped that divine law was never intended as a mechanism for the already privileged to cement that advantage and keep others in their places.  Habakkuk was furious as he saw the wealthy in Israel use legal devices to keep the poor in poverty and instead of changing the system for the benefit of the widows and orphans and aliens, they assuaged their own consciences by granting alms to those with little while ensuring that the legal systems of the day continued to profit themselves at the expense of those with little.


In the face of this kind of systemic injustice, Habakkuk cried out to God for intervention.  Habakkuk must have been initially pleased when God quickly responded and agreed that the prophet was right to be filled with moral outrage.  But what God said next, blew Habakkuk away – and not in a good way.  In the face of Habakkuk’s complaint, God promised to punish Israel – by bringing an invasion from Chaldea to destroy Israel.  Habakkuk was (almost) speechless!  This would never do!  The Chaldeans were EVEN MORE EVIL than the Israelites – more evil BY FAR!!  How could God possible use the morally corrupt Chaldeans to teach Israel a lesson?  It was something like turning the vicious, 90-pound, first grade bully loose on the 45-pound child who stole a dime from his neighbor’s desk.  The punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime.


I think it’s likely this story so appeals to me because it seems so honestly realistic.  Years ago I grew disillusioned with forms of church that seemed mostly focused on the suggestion that people who are nice will experience the blessing of God.  Long ago I knew that if the only thing that church had to offer was a paternal pat on the head for people who were already far ahead in the game of life, then church was worthless and unworthy.  Too often, church descends into forms of health and wealth blessing – that if you keep certain rules having mostly to do with regulating sex and avoiding bad words and giving money to the church, then God would be delighted to be on your side and would cure your diseases and make your business ventures prosper and ensure that your children are beautiful and smart and obedient.


But this is not the story of the Bible.  The story of the Bible, as we’ve seen with Job and countless other heroes of faith is that following God can mean loss as often as it means gain and that following Jesus sometimes gets us into more trouble than it ever gets us out of.  To put it bluntly – faith is not a “Get out of Jail Free” card.  


Habakkuk was stunned when God promised to punish the Israelites – Habakkuk’s own people, mind you – by bringing an invasion of people even more wicked than they.  


And for most of my adult life, I have gulped and aspired to be like Habakkuk.  When Habakkuk got this awful message (and make no mistake, it IS an awful message), Habakkuk didn’t sulk or argue or quit.  No, Habakkuk listened to God, swallowed his objections, and saw his faith grow ten-sizes (a bit like the Grinch, whose heart grew in response to the song of the Who’s).  


What Habakkuk did then was to sing.  I bet the song he originally sang was longer than what got recorded, but what’s written here is long enough – “Even though everything falls apart – if the fruit trees wither and the fields turn to dust and the animals in the barn fail to produce offspring and finally die themselves – even then I will praise God.”  


This is NO health and wealth gospel!  This is not a faith built on the foundation of what’s in it for me.  This is a faith built on the conviction that there is good and evil, right and wrong, things just and unjust, beautiful and ugly, true and false – and that I will line myself up with God, even if I die.  


The words of Paul in Romans 8 are obviously based on a similar conviction.  Listen again to this remarkable affirmation:  


Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?...  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.


My friends, this is Gospel truth.  Our faith is not about moralism – our faith is about depending on God’s love in good days and in bad days.  Our faith is about loving God and loving neighbor.  Our faith is about hope in the midst of darkness – hope even if the darkness never ends.  Our faith is not about winning, it’s about loving.  Why?  Because that’s the way into the beloved community – the community that God longs for every human being – for you and for me and for our children – for people near and far.  Thanks be to God for grace and for love.  Let us give our lives to God – not so we might win, but so that we might serve.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


It is a privilege to share the holy sacrament of communion with you this one last time.  Remember, it is in these seemingly innocent and powerless symbols – bread and wine – that the power of God to bring life from death is most fully realized.  When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we join ourselves with Jesus for the work that Jesus aches to be accomplished here on earth.  The sacrament is not magic – it is something much more powerful than that.  It is myth – it is poetry – it is love enacted in symbols.  Let me warn you – if you eat these elements with an open heart, God may get hold of you in unimaginable ways and change you forever.  There’s risk in these elements!


Scripture teaches us that this is the joyful feast of the people of God.  Men and women, youth and children, come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and gather about Christ’s table. 


Remember, this table is open to all who seek to know and follow Christ.  Come to this table, not because you must, but because you may.  Come not because you are filled, but because in your emptiness you stand in need of God’s mercy and assurance.  Come not to express an opinion, but to seek a presence and to pray for a spirit.  Come, my friends, just as you are!


Holiest God of grace and expectation, consecrate these holy elements – here on this table, and in cars and homes and wherever else these words are being heard – consecrate these elements.  Make them into the very body and blood of Jesus – the elements of true life so that by our eating, we might know Jesus in new and deeper ways and follow him wherever he may lead us – to places we might never imagine, but always, always, always in love.  This we pray in hope, Amen!


Dear friends, these are the gifts of God for the children of God.  They are for you and they are for me.  These gifts are exactly what we need.  Receive them with hope, gratefulness, and joy.  Come, for all things are now ready!


<take the bread>


This bread is the body of Christ.  Eat it in gratefulness and determination to be Christ everywhere you go!


<take the cup> 


This cup is the blood of our savior.  It represents a promise of forgiveness and life that will never be shaken.  It does not promise an easy life – it promises a life of meaning and love.  Eat with God’s blessing!


Powerful God of weakness and service, we give thanks for your provision of life.  We thank you for this sacrament and its power.  Use it to advance the process of holy transformation in each of our lives.  


Gracious God, I thank you for the work and ministry of Zwingli United Church of Christ.  Continue to bless this congregation as it seeks to serve you and the world.  Lead them into partnership with a new pastor who will love them and challenge them in all your ways.  


We pray for all the people of this church – for those who have lost loved ones in recent years, for those who are struggling with illness, for those who are discouraged, for those who have needs we do not easily understand.  Heal all of us and encourage us to live in hope.  


Because you surround us with care and purpose, we come before you in silence – knowing that certain truths can never be contained in words.  Meet us in this silence, we pray:


<silence>


Now loving God, hear us as we join our voices in the beloved prayer of our savior, saying “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom and the power and glory forever, Amen!”


A few announcements:


  • Because the relationship between a pastor and a church is not merely an employment relationship but even more deeply a spiritual covenant, it is right to note the ending of that relationship with words of worship.  Rev. Lorraine Ceniceros, our staff connection with the Wisconsin Conference of the UCC will join us in a Zoom videoconference call to lead those worshipful words of parting on Tuesday evening, December 29, at 7:00 pm.  You have the choice of joining by Zoom (the link was in the weekly email last Wednesday), or on the church Facebook page.  No matter which method you choose, I hope you will participate.  The service will be very short – 10-15 minutes – but meaningful and important, I believe.
  • Please remember that starting January 1, I will no longer be available for any kind of pastoral care or service.  This is not because I will stop caring for you; it is so that you will be emotionally and spiritually free to enter into a new relationship with that man or woman who God next calls to serve in this place.  I will be praying for all of you!
  • As you leave the parking lot today, you may leave your offering for the support of the church in the offering box.  Your faithful financial support has been remarkable.  Please continue that faithful commitment.  
  • Remember, the Annual Meeting of the congregation will happen late in January (more details on that later), but if you have a report to submit for the meeting booklet, it needs to be in the hands of Kathie Wagner by January 10.  Thank you!


Our closing hymn is one of my favorites.  It was sung at my installation and now again today we will hear it.  It speaks of the community of faith – how strong and important and necessary is the Christian Church.  Listen please to the music (from one of Brahms’ symphonies) and to these powerful words:


We Are God’s People – 547 (verses 1, 3 & 4)


As this service of worship ends and we prepare for the rest of this day, hear these ancient words of blessing:  The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.  Amen!


Go in peace.  Serve the Lord.  Live in love.  Amen!


God Be With You – Becky


Postlude



20 December 2020

posted Dec 18, 2020, 2:17 PM by Cameron Hubanks

Zwingli United Church of Christ

Paoli, Wisconsin

20 December 2020 – 4th Sunday in Advent/Confirmation Sunday

Luke 1:26-38


Here I Am!!


Prelude – Ruby


Welcome to worship at Zwingli United Church of Christ.  Today is not only the 4th Sunday in Advent – we’ll note that in a moment – it is also Confirmation Sunday.  Four of our young people have been studying with me and with Lee Stilwell since early September.  Given the realities of this remarkable and difficult year, we’ve gathered online for this work.  Not once have we met face-to-face – a reality that grieves me a bit, but which also demonstrated for me the resourcefulness and creativity available to people of good will who put their minds to something challenging and create something new and workable.  Before we go any further, I want to thank the confirmands for their patience and persistence and their parents for their support.  It is worth noting that we had perfect attendance for this experience – all of the students were present for every session!  The only exception was that Lee Stilwell (whose supportive presence was a gift to me!) missed the last two sessions given the realities of heart bypass surgery!


As you all know, we begin worship at Zwingli Church by affirming that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, YOU are welcome here.  It happens that on this day, we will illustrate the practical reality of this assertion by welcoming these 4 young people into adult membership, AND by welcoming the parents and aunt of two of the confirmands into membership.  This is an experience I’ve never been a part of before, and it is delightful!


As I reminded us a minute ago, this is the 4th and last Sunday in Advent.  To remind us of Advent hopefulness and Advent expectation, please join yourself with all the faithful in a moment of conscious waiting, as the four Advent candles are lit.


<Light the candles>


Given the technical difficulties of overlaying music and spoken word in this combination of Zoom and Facebook, I’m inviting you to listen to the music of our opening hymn without words.  Rehearse the words in your heart, if you know them, and if you do not, allow the music itself to carry you into an imagined concert of heavenly beings as we hear the music of the Christmas carol, “Angels We Have Heard on High:


Angels We Have Heard on High – 188 (2x)


The only semblance of a sermon this morning will be the brief excerpts that each confirmand will read from the statement of faith I asked each to write.  Having said that, it is always right and good to hear scripture during any worship experience, and one of the assigned texts for this Sunday seems especially appropriate for today:  It is the story of how an angel came to Mary and sought her cooperation in this event we call “the incarnation” – the process by which the eternal 2nd person of the Godhead became human in the form of a helpless baby.  This baby needed a mother and Mary – if she agreed – was God’s choice to be that mother.  Listen to the story as Luke tells it in his account of the Gospel:


Luke 1:26-38 – READ


Just as Mary made herself available to God for whatever God had in mind, so each of us is invited and urged to make ourselves so available to God for God’s work.  There is a sense in which that describes confirmation.  It is, I suppose, frequently thought that the object of confirmation is the young person.  But that is not right.  The object of confirmation is vows – baptismal vows.  Vows which were made by parents and/or other responsible adults on behalf of infants or small children when said infant had no capacity to participate in and own those vows.  In the rite of confirmation, a young person considers those vows made on his or her behalf and acts to own those vows as her or his own.  It is the vows that are being confirmed, and it is young person doing the confirming – not the pastor.  


With that simple background, let us enter into the liturgy for confirmation:


(A technical note:  Zoom typically uses an automatic process to permit only one speaker at a time.  That means that when all the confirmands speak together, we will hear none of them – though perhaps we will see their lips move!  Only when they are speaking individually – and have remembered to unmute themselves – will we hear them.)


Introduction to the Liturgy of Confirmation

Friends in Christ, we all are received into the church through the sacrament of baptism.  These young people have found nurture and support in the midst of this family of Christ.  Through prayer and study they have been led by the Holy Spirit to affirm their baptism and to claim in our presence their covenantal relationship with Christ and the members of the church.  They are here for service to Jesus Christ, using the gifts which the Holy Spirit bestows.


In addition to participation in the weekly class sessions, each of the confirmands was asked to write a paper summarizing their own faith convictions.  Each of them took this assignment seriously and they each wrote a paper of thoughtfulness and honesty.  I was very proud of their work!  I’ve asked each of them to read a small portion of their papers.  Here they are:


ILANA:  I believe that God is a spirit who watches over us. No one can see him but he is there, making sure everything has reasoning. I don’t really know where God is but I know he is always there.  Just like God, I feel like the son and Holy Spirit are always there, watching over us..... God wants us to live in peace and harmony but also wants to challenge us to make us better people. Service is very important, it helps us learn about who we are and what we want in life.


IAN:  Church is a place where people go to learn about God and religion. This matters because everyone should know how the world was created and how it came to be. Also, Jesus taught us to be kind to everyone, love our enemies and do not judge people by their failures.  Some churches can be better than others. Some churches think that some people are better than others and do not let the people that they think are less than into the church to learn about God. I would like to be part of a church that welcomes everyone and teaches everyone. I think everyone should be allowed because we are all humans and we all should learn about God.
 

ELLA:  I feel a huge part of the god’s work is to give us salvation. I feel that everyone has their own issues that they need to be saved from. Jesus has a part in spreading the word of what the gods have planned to help save us from crumbling to pieces. People of other religions have different messengers and some have different gods. The church is a place of worship and forgiveness. A place where people mend their brokenness and ask for forgiveness on things they wish they never did. Others come to celebrate the gods and all they have done for us. In a larger picture, churches are a place of safety, salvation even for some. 


GARRETT:  So I believe in God and I really like my church family.  I believe that God will reward us for our hard work, and maybe that is why my family likes to give to others.  I think about the activities we do at church, and how much of the money we make should go to others.  Giving to others is important, whether you give money or more importantly your time.  Yes, I am sure I will get made at God, and probably you will too.  But I also know that many good things I have are because of God and what others have sacrificed for me.  I guess I also want to thank God for bringing special people into my life through church.


Pastor Rich:  Thank you!  As I said earlier, the essence of the act of confirmation is the point at which the young person takes over the baptismal vows which were made on their behalf on the day of their baptism.  The questions which follow are those baptismal vows.  As they respond together, they are taking ownership of those vows and aligning themselves with Jesus as followers and disciples in their own right.


Questions of the Confirmands

Ilana, Ian, Garrett and Ella, do you desire to affirm your baptism into the faith and family of Jesus Christ?

I do.

Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire the freedom of new life in Christ?

I do.

Do you profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?

I do.

Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?

I promise, with the help of God.

Do you promise, according to the grace given you, to grow in the Christian faith and to be a faithful member of the church of Jesus Christ, celebrating Christ’s presence and furthering Christ’s mission in all the world?

I promise, with the help of God.


Affirmation of Faith

Let us unite with the church in all times and places in confessing our faith in the triune God.

Do you believe in God?

I believe in God.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ?

I believe in Jesus Christ.

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

I believe in the Holy Spirit.


Prayer of the Confirmands  (Pastor and confirmands)

O God, my God, known to me in Jesus Christ, I give myself to you as your own, to love and serve you faithfully all the days of my life.  Amen.

Prayer of the Congregation

Almighty God, through baptism you received these young people into your church.  Grant them – and all of us – love for others, joy in serving you, peace in disagreement, patience in suffering, kindness toward all people, goodness in evil times, faithfulness in temptation, gentleness in the face of opposition, and self-control in all things.  Strengthen them – and us! – for our mutual ministry in the world.  This we pray through Jesus, Amen!


Act of Confirmation & Prayer  (I will pray this prayer 4 times – once with each confirmand)

O God, in the grace of Jesus Christ you have accepted this your servant Ella/Garrett/Ian/Ilana through the water of baptism.  Nourish in her/him the power of your Holy Spirit that she/he may serve you in the world until you receive her/him at last in your eternal home.

(After all confirmands have been commissioned and blessed:)

We rejoice, O merciful God, with these friends at their ownership of their baptismal promises.  Help them to live not merely for themselves, but for Christ and for those whom Christ loves.  Keep them steady and abounding in hope, never giving up, and continually pressing on toward the goal of life with you in Jesus Christ.  Amen.


Question about Participation

Ian, Ella, Garrett, Ilana:  Do you promise to participate in the life and mission of this family of God’s people, sharing regularly in the worship of God and enlisting in the work of Zwingli United Church of Christ as it serves this community and the world?

I promise, with the help of God.


Congregational Welcome

Let us, the members and friends of Zwingli United Church of Christ join our hearts together and express our welcome and affirm our mutual ministry in Christ.

(Read by Faith Wittwer):  We promise you our friendship and prayers – our continuing love, support and care – as together we share the hope and work of the church of Jesus Christ.  Together, with God’s help, may we all grow together in the knowledge, love and service of God.


Greeting of Christian Love

In the name of Jesus Christ, and on behalf of Zwingli Church, we extend to you the hand of Christian love.


And now, it is a pleasure and delight to welcome Heather & Jason Beloungy and Patti Hogan into membership here at Zwingli United Church of Christ.  Patti, Jason and Heather began to worship with us last year and with Ella and Ilana, were almost every Sunday attenders until the pandemic ended public worship last March.  


The membership vows – like the vows of confirmation – are essentially the same as the baptismal vows.  They vary a bit from church to church, but in essence they are the same.  I have abbreviated the vows for these three since we have just heard them and I will instead invite Jason, Heather and Patti to respond affirmatively to these two summary questions:


Pastor:  Do you , Patti, Heather & Jason, profess faith in Jesus Christ and will you, together with this congregation seek to serve the one holy and just God of the universe in bringing love, grace and justice to all?  If this is your intention, please respond, “I do.”


New Members:  I do


Pastor:  Do you promise to participate in the life and mission of this family of God’s people, sharing regularly in the worship of God and enlisting in the work of Zwingli United Church of Christ as it serves this community and the world?


New Members:  I promise, with the help of God.


Congregational Rep - Faith:  With joy and with thanksgiving to God, we welcome you into the membership of this local church – Zwingli United Church of Christ.  We look forward to knowing you better and partnering with you for the increase of the realm of God.  Thanks be to God!


Pastor:  If we were gathered in person, there would have been the sharing of handshakes and embraces with all seven of these persons.  Those handshakes and embraces will have to wait for a day when it is safe and prudent to do so.  I charge ALL of you to be sure this eventually happens – since I won’t be here to remind you!   Also, the 4 confirmands would have received certificates of confirmation and a small gift from the church.  That will happen, but not today.  Instead, those certificates and gifts will be mailed to each of them.  But I wanted to show you the gift and say a word about it:


<hold up olive wood cross>


This cross is handmade by a Christian Palestinian family business in Bethlehem.  Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the predicament of the Palestinian people is one which the Old Testament prophets would have been horrified by.  The Israeli occupation of Palestine has now lasted for over 50 years and shows no sign of ending.  Our own government’s growing complicity with Israel in the subjugation of the Palestinian people is one which Jesus – himself a Jew, of course – would clearly have condemned.  Ian, Ilana, Ella and Garrett – may your ownership of this small cross be a constant reminder that Jesus is always on the side of the underdog and invites his disciples (that would be YOU!) to always join with Jesus in advocating for justice for all people – particularly the oppressed and dispossessed.  God bless you!


Our closing hymn is another Christmas hymn – this time one of joy and hope.  The follower of Jesus is always challenged to face the reality of human injustice and sin, and then look Godward and affirm hope and joy in the midst of darkness and evil.  Again, rehearse the words in your heart, if you know them, or else let the stirring music alone move you into the presence of God:


Good Christian Friends Rejoice! – 198 (2x)


Just a few announcements:


  • The Christmas Eve service will stream from the sanctuary at 3:00 pm on Thursday afternoon.  You may watch it on Facebook live at that time, or anytime later in the day or week.  I hope you will watch.  The service will be heavy with Christmas music and with a story for children – about Jesus and Santa Claus – can you imagine that?
  • Next Sunday will again be drive-in worship.  However, given the likely weather, Becky and I will lead the service from inside the church and the service itself will be broadcast to your car radio (if you are here), or else streamed to Facebook Live if you stay home.  There will be communion, so please be prepared with your own elements.  And… at the conclusion of the service I will come outside to greet you and say a (probably) tearful goodbye through your car window as you leave.  


And now, these words of benediction:  God is good and God is great!  God has sustained the church universal for 2000 years and God has sustained this congregation – Zwingli UCC for well over 100 years.  Our new members – Garrett, Ilana, Ella, Ian, Patti, Heather and Jason remind us that God brings new people to reinvigorate our common life – to encourage us, to invite us to change, to join us in the work of Christ.  This week is the 2nd holiest of the Christian year.  As we celebrate Christmas – the coming of God to live as one of us – make us faithful witnesses of the Good News of God’s inviting love.  Go in peace, my friends.  Serve God by spreading love, joy, justice and peace.  God is, indeed, good.  Thanks be to God!


God Be With You – Ruby


Postlude - Ruby


13 December 2020

posted Dec 18, 2020, 2:16 PM by Cameron Hubanks

Zwingli United Church of Christ

Paoli, Wisconsin

13 December 2020

Psalm 126


REAPING WITH SHOUTS OF JOY


Prelude – Becky


Good morning and welcome to Advent worship with the people of Zwingli United Church of Christ in Paoli, Wisconsin.  Advent is, of course, a season for sharpening our senses.  It’s important to have well-tuned senses – acute hearing, sharp eyesight, and more – because we’d not want to miss the coming of God.  One of the things we’ve been taught is that God frequently shows up in the person of someone we don’t know.  That’s part of the reason we strive to be a welcoming and inclusive congregation – why we always start worship by looking each other in the face and announcing that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, YOU are welcome here!  So, welcome – every single one of you!


For some folk welcoming strangers feels…. well….”strange.”  It’s a way of life that sometimes feels unnatural.  It’s important to be clear about this point.  We’re not about the work of welcoming outsiders because it’s somehow “nice.”  That’s not it.  This is a learning commitment because it seems to be the way of Jesus and in this community of faith, we’re about learning the ways of Jesus and making those ways our own.  That’s why we sing a little song to start worship – Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus.  After all, if we don’t know the ways of Jesus, how can we possibly follow them?  It’s obvious – we can’t.  Please join in singing:


Open Our Eyes, Lord – 


Today (if you’re watching this on Sunday, December 13) is the third Sunday in Advent.  Traditionally it’s a day for cultivating joy!  The texts and themes for Advent don’t always neatly line up with the traditional themes of the four Advent candles – Hope, Peace, Joy, Love – but today they do.  The 126th Psalm is a hymn of joy and so as we light the 3rd candle – the pink candle, the JOY candle – let’s give thanks for joy and the resolve – even when life is difficult – to be people of joy!


Light the first three candles


Liturgical purists do not allow the singing of Christmas carols during Advent.  They have an argument, but I guess I’m not much of a purist.  For the first two Sundays of Advent, we heard Advent hymns – good Advent hymns!  But today, we’re going to hear Christmas carols, beginning with “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  Listen to the lilting tune and then the words of the first and fourth verses as I read them:


O Little Town of Bethlehem – 180 (verses 1 & 4)


Our text today is a song of exuberance!  It is a song of one whose fortunes have taken an entirely unexpected turn for the better and who is moved to the praise of God for that surprising turn of events.  Listen to these words of joy:


Psalm 126


Please join your heart with mine as we come to God in prayer:  Gracious God of joy – our fortunes could use a turn for the better.  Our lives have been restricted for months on end.  During this past week, we have been sobered to learn that on each and every day more than 2000 people have died – mothers, fathers, children, aunts and uncles, grandparents and friends.  Loved ones – all of them.  15,000 people in just one week in just one country.  We are appalled.  We are sobered.  We are grieving.  To contemplate joy in the midst of so much death feels somehow insensitive.  Send your Spirit to us and teach us the ways of Godly joy, we pray with resolution, Amen!


Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the top – joy and happiness are not the same thing.  Yes, they are superficially similar, but at their respective centers, they are different.  Happiness is circumstantial.  It has to do with felicitous experiences.  Happiness is a good thing.  Thank God for happiness – I hope you have much happiness in your life.  But joy is something different.  Joy finds its foundation in convictions and faith.  It is possible for a person to be possessed of genuine joy in the midst of profound difficulty and still not be in denial.  


We are right to be worried about the person whose world is falling apart, but still claims to be happy.  But another person in identical circumstances might evidence a kind of determined faith and hopefulness – and I call that “thing” – joy.  There need be no denial at all to be near death and yet still possessed of and by joy.  Happiness in that same situation would be suspiciously odd.


When the angels announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds outside Bethlehem, they – the shepherds – were not promised happiness – they were promised joy.  In the words of the beloved carol, “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!”


Today’s scripture text – the 126th Psalm – is labeled a “Song of Ascent.”  No one knows with certainly why the Psalms from 120 through 134 are all titled “Songs of Ascent.”  I find most convincing the theory which says that these are the songs that religious pilgrims from elsewhere in Israel and the Mideast sang as they journeyed to Jerusalem to observe the high holy days – especially the Passover.  Jerusalem, after all, is built on a hill.  As you walk toward the city, you must ascend – thus a “Song of Ascents.”  


This particular song seems to be written in response to a recent turn for the good in the writer’s life.  That may be true – I think it probably is.  But if that’s all it is, then it’s just as likely a song of happiness.  In fact, I think it’s more than that.  This writer is not superficially relieved at an up day on the stock market – or a surprising jump in milk prices – or a winning lottery ticket.  All of those are perfectly legitimate causes for happiness – and praise God for that.  But this Psalm writer is speaking of something different than a good day at the racetrack – this writer seems to understand that there will always be a mixture of good days and difficult days and that God is the holder of ALL days and the key to fulfilling life is a deep-seated reliance on God’s care.   A deep-seated reliance that holds firm in the midst of victories and defeats.  A deep-seated reliance that resists being shaken even on days of loss and sickness and trouble even as it focuses on God instead of on one’s own hard work when there are gains and health and good times.


In the words of the Psalmist, “May those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of joy.”  All farmers know the riskiness of planting.  It might not rain, or it might rain too much.  The riskiness of planting was even more apparent to the ancient farmer – she may have planted her last seed with tears and fear – what would she and her family eat next week?  No wonder the harvest elicited shouts of joy!


We must be clear:  Christian faith is never about falsehood.  Never.  Christian faith is always about truth.  Christian faith is always about resisting those who spin stories of what they WISH was true and instead it’s about facing what’s really going on.  You and I live in a day when voices compete to manufacture reality rather than to face reality – particularly when it is unpleasant.  Christian faith is about facing life without tinted glasses and relying on God to carry us through bad days and good days alike – and in both cases doing so with rock-solid conviction that God is good and will never leave us or forsake us.  


A theme of several of the Songs of Ascent is that of waiting.  They are very Advent oriented.  It seems that waiting in hope is a profoundly faithful thing to do.  It seems that waiting in hope forms and shapes the soul – shapes it into something deeply beautiful!  It seems that waiting in hope transforms the waiter in the very process of waiting.  Waiting in hope seems to build joy.  


There are countless occasions for waiting.  The loss of a job, stress in a relationship, a frightening medical report, the troubles of a loved one – all these and more are causes for waiting.  Not necessarily for passive waiting, but for waiting, nonetheless.  The human impulse to fix is fine when a cure or remedy is honestly at hand, but when there is no realistic cure at hand, then to offer words without substance is untrue and probably even cruel.  There comes a day when the most caring thing to say to others and to ourselves is a word of honesty:  “This is hard.  I cannot imagine how it might be better.  Maybe it won’t ever BE better.  But still I love you.  Still God loves you.”  And in the midst of this honesty and realism, we may be surprised by joy.  


Never forget that pink candle over there.  It’s just a symbol, but the symbol is at the heart of our faith.  Despair may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.  Thanks be to God!  


Let’s pray:  Holy God, the human temptation to shape perceptions to that which we’d prefer to be true is powerful, but it is a lying impulse and therefore untrue.  As followers of Jesus we are counselled to walk in light and in truth and in honesty.  The honest message of Advent is that God is coming but if we insist that God come in the way we’d prefer, we may miss God.  Give us the courage to lay aside our preconceptions and to let you be God instead of making ourselves into God.  Give us the courage to face life as it is – to hold tightly to the hands of those who need a friend and companion and to find joy when it turns out that our friend is God – or even more surprisingly – that we turn out to be God for our friend.


As is the case every week when we gather, our hearts carry concerns.  Today our friend Lee Stilwell is recovering from cardiac bypass surgery.  We are grateful for the care he has received and pray that your touch will be on him for healing and recovery.  We also pray for our Pastoral Search Committee as they seek new pastoral leadership for the church and for the Church Council as they consider a candidate for interim leadership starting January 1.  


Silence is a powerful form of prayer.  Hear us as we carry to you that which burdens us.  Surprise us with joy, we pray:


<Silence>


The prayer of our Savior is simple and powerful.  Hear us as we join our voices in this ancient prayer of confession and affirmation: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom and the power and glory forever, Amen!”


A few announcements:

  • Next Sunday is not only the 4th Sunday of Advent, it is also Confirmation Sunday for the 4 students who have been faithfully working through a concentrated course of study since September.  I am very proud of these four – Ian Batker, Ella & Ilana Beloungy, and Garrett Pauli.  The service of confirmation will stream live as usual next Sunday morning, but it will look different because it will be a Zoom meeting with the confirmands and their families and me.  I hope you’ll join us.  Thanks!
  • Our special mission offering “today” (or whenever you send in your check) is for Heifer International.  Make your check payable to the church and mark it for “Heifer.”  Please give generously!
  • The Christmas Eve service will be a simple service of carols, readings (including a story for children) and a very short meditation.  It will stream live at 3:00 pm on the 24th, and then be available on demand later in the day or on Christmas Day, or whenever you’d prefer to watch.  
  • As this strange year draws to a close, please remember to continue your faithful financial support of the church.  Your gifts have been remarkably generous.  God bless you!


Our closing hymn is a Christmas carol that I particularly love: “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming.”  It is deeply theological song which compares the coming of Jesus to a rose which, as it were, blooms out of season to bring hope, life and salvation.  Listen with gratefulness and…. yes, joy, to this lovely hymn:


Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming – 190 – Verses 1 & 3


Now hear these words of benediction:  My friends, we are invited to the experience of joy!  In spite of the message of the hymn, our promise isn’t really a rose garden (as such) – but it is to lives of purpose and hope and meaning and joy.  You, my friends, are called to joy – joy that can enrich your own life and, in the process, enrich the lives of all who relate with you.  That’s our calling – to be joy-bearers; joy-givers.  What a privilege!  Thanks be to God.  Go in hope.  Go in peace. Go in love.  And especially, go in joy!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


God Be With You – Becky


Postlude - Becky


6 December 2020

posted Dec 9, 2020, 2:53 PM by Cameron Hubanks

Zwingli United Church of Christ

Paoli, Wisconsin

6 December 2020

Isaiah 40:1-11


COMFORT


Prelude – Becky


Good morning (or afternoon, or evening – depending on when you are watching this)!  Welcome to online worship at Zwingli United Church of Christ.  It doesn’t matter who you are.  It doesn’t matter where you are on life’s journey, YOU are welcome here.  By God’s grace we will together find a word of comfort today – a needed word of comfort amidst social acrimony and cultural suspicion and literal death.  The first line of our Biblical text today has God speaking and saying, “Comfort my people.”  Lean in – today’s advent message is one of comfort!


At Zwingli Church we begin worship with a little song that focuses our attention on Jesus.  This isn’t merely a pious sentiment of little meaning.  I am utterly convinced that the surest road to peace and comfort (and also discomfort – but that’s a message for another day!) is a steely-eyed commitment to the ways of Christ.  Or to put it differently, a determined focus on Jesus moves us closer to meaningful life, and meaningful life is itself a reliable source of comfort.  So please join your voice, or at least your spirit, as we remind ourselves to open our eyes to Jesus.


Open Our Eyes, Lord – Becky


Today, December 6, is the 2nd Sunday of Advent.  Advent, of course, is the 4-week period of anticipation and waiting that leads us inexorably to Christmas.  Advent is about hope.  Advent is about open eyes.  Advent is about deep desire.  Advent is about merging human life and need with Godly life and God’s loving supply of whatever humans most deeply require.  As we relight last Sunday’s candle, and light one more for today, please be mindful that we do so not because God is somehow reluctant to come to us, but because we are so often blind to the presence of God all around.  These candles are a symbol of our intention to bring light to the dark corners of life so that even in those darkest of places, we may be surprised to find God, and therefore, hope and comfort.  Please join your spirit with mine as we light these two candles:


Light 2 Advent candles


The words of this opening hymn – Comfort, Comfort Now My People – are taken directly from today’s text in Isaiah 40.  Listen to the music and then to the words:


Comfort, Comfort Now My People – 155 (verses 1 & 3)


The prophecies of Isaiah are complex and sometimes confusing.  This is partly, I suppose, because this single book was probably not written by one author but by perhaps three.  I’ll not unpack these theories today, but suffice it to understand that the words of this morning’s text are delivered to a people in the midst of suffering and great loss.  Isaiah delivers this message to a people in national distress and though these words were written for Israel, it seems to me they have relevance for Americans who live in a time of pandemic loss and deep cultural division and suspicion.  These are words of comfort – make no mistake – but there is an undertone of warning in these words.  Listen carefully as I read – God intends to speak to all of us through the prophet:


Isaiah 40:1-11


In mid-March of this year – just short of 9 months ago – a hurried decision was made to cancel in-person worship here at Zwingli Church.  There was rising alarm at the rapid spread of an only recently identified virus which caused a disease soon to be named as COVID-19.  


Almost no one understood back in March that come December we would still be worshiping apart.  I certainly did not anticipate that.  And, if you are anything like me, you are deeply saddened – indeed in grief – at the losses of these 9 months.  The most obvious loss is the mind-boggling death of over 250,000 people in this one country – and over 1.5 million in the entire world.  But even those of us who do not personally know anyone who has died of COVID-19 have suffered our own, smaller losses.  Most obviously our social lives have been turned upside-down.  Family gatherings, sporting events, concerts and plays, family vacations, book clubs and more have been cancelled.  School has gone online and work looks exceedingly different – for some jobs have ceased to exist.


As I look out my window on this lovely December morning, the sun is shining, and it seems a perfect day.  But I know enough to understand that while my life has merely been inconvenienced, for many the beauty of this day camouflages deep loss, debilitating fear and anxiety that threatens relationships and even life itself.  


Is there a word from God in midst of our anxiety, loss and death?  I believe there is.  A part of that word is found in our text this morning – the text in which God directs the prophet to comfort the people.  And what might be the substance of that comfort?  Interestingly, it’s not that the immediate source of the discomfort will be quickly taken away, it’s that God is coming.  


There are two seemingly contradictory things that this text – indeed the entire Bible – speak to us.  The first is that human trouble is ubiquitous.  That’s a big word (that I first learned in organic chemistry class, of all places – where the opening line of the text announced that the carbon atom is ubiquitous) that means everywhere present.  Carbon atoms are everywhere present in our world and trouble is even more everywhere present!  Alas!  Partly we are immersed in trouble of our own making and partly we are immersed in trouble that seems inherent in world.  Often the trouble we self-create merges with the trouble that’s general (like tornadoes and droughts…and pandemics) to create challenges that conspire to crush even the strongest of us.   


Without going into detail, the people to whom Isaiah writes are downing in troubles that partly of their own making (they have despised and taken advantage of the poor, they have worshiped God in form but not in heart) and partly they are suffering at calamities they did not cause or deserve.  The same is true today – we suffer partly because we make poor choices, but partly we suffer for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not we are wise and careful and faithful.  


What we must not do is assume that God is out to get us.  It is true that God is heart-broken at the foolishness and sin to which we cling so tightly, but (as I reminded us last week) God does not ignore our sin, but God is able to see through our sin to the goodness that lies deep within everyone of us, and God conspires – sometimes with, sometimes without our cooperation – to bring that goodness to the surface.  


In a moment we will celebrate communion together.  Communion is a mystical (and superficially absurd) act in which we claim to experience Jesus in a bit of ordinary bread and ordinary juice.  What I find powerfully amazing is that for 2000 years now, faithful humans have kept the perplexing practice of communion alive.  The fact is, many (not all, of course) are amazed and delighted to meet Jesus in the everyday bread and wine.  


I’ve said it before and will say it again – the point of faith isn’t to make our life a rose-garden.  God may or may not save your marriage.  God may or may not heal your cancer.  God may or may not save your job.  But God will be with you.  You will NOT be alone.  There will be purpose and meaning, even in the middle of pain and loss.  And eventually you and I will die.  


Yikes!  But the hope of faith is that death isn’t the end – death is finally our reunion with God.  Death is the culmination of a life lived somewhat imperfectly, but with hope.  And in that hope is comfort.  Not pie in the sky comfort, but the rock-solid peace that passes all understanding.  


This is advent hope.  I can’t prove it to you, I can only suggest that you eat the bread and drink the wine and ask God to be with you – to come to you – to challenge you – to care for you.  Millions have found God to do precisely that.  You might also.  Indeed, come Lord Jesus!  Come!


Holy God, we now move to the table of grace and sustenance.  We ask that you bless and sanctify these simple, everyday elements that they may become the source of life and comfort for all of us.  We are people who stand in need.  Come to us in Advent grace and prepare us for the joy of your presence – we pray in faith, Amen!


In a simple meal long ago Jesus took bread and offered it to his loved ones saying, “This is my body.  It is given for you.  It is real food.  Eat it and find yourself changed for the better.”  My friends, this IS the body of Christ.  It is for you.  Eat it and live!


<Eat the bread>


Similarly, later in the meal, Jesus took a cup of everyday dinner wine and holding it out to those he loved, he said, “This cup is the new promise of life and forgiveness for all who drink it in faith.  Drink it with determination and hope.  Drink it and live.”  And they did, and their lives were changed.  So, in the name of Christ I offer you the same:  This cup is the cup of blessing and forgiveness and new life.  Drink it and find the comfort of Christ!


<Drink the cup>


Please join me in prayer:  Holy God, we are waiting for you.  Sometimes we wait weakly and in doubt, other times more strongly and in faith.  Regardless, we wait.  Thank you for the promises of Advent which teach us that you come and you come and you come some more.  Give us eyes to see you – in the poor and needy, in our own troubles, in our pain and in the pain of those who love and live among.  Transform us do thoroughly that not only do we look for Christ, but that we BECOME Christ for all who stand in need of your healing touch and your comfort.  


Gracious God, we pray for those we know and love.  We thank you that Lee Stilwell is recovering from a potentially serious medical challenge and that Dennis Hustad is similarly recovering from knee replacement surgery.  We also pray for the family of James Roum (brother-in-law to Connie Urfer) who died this past week.  Minister to each of them and to others who I have not named today.  


We also pray for our Pastoral Search Committee.  As my tenure as pastor draws to a close, I thank you God, for the privilege of serving here these short 2 and half years and pray your blessing on the church and whoever it is you call to come and serve next as pastor.


In the midst of all these words, God waits for us in silence.  Let us reflect God’s silence in a different type of prayer:


<Silence>


Now join me and the entire church as we pray using the words of Jesus, saying, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom and the power and glory forever, Amen!”


A few announcements:


  • The first of our three special offerings this month will benefit the Host-a-family project in the greater Oregon and Stoughton area.  Your gifts will purchase Christmas gifts for children who might otherwise receive no gift this year.  You can make your check payable to the church with a note indicating that it is for the Host-a-Family project.  Thank you!
  • There will be a Christmas Eve service of readings and music posted to Facebook starting at 3:00 pm on the 24th.  A small advantage to these days of separation is that you can participate in that service of worship at whatever time best serves you and your family – so long as that is no earlier than 3 pm!  Blessings!
  • There will be further word about Confirmation Sunday and the reception of new members, and a brief service of farewell for both you and me later in the month.  Stay tuned for more information.  


Our closing hymn is not a traditional Advent hymn – it a hymn of hope and comfort.  Listen to these powerful words of hope from Be Still, My Soul!


Be Still, My Soul – 451 (verses 1 & 2)


Now hear these words of commissioning and benediction:  In the midst of trouble, there is God.  In the midst of fear and despair, there is Christ.  In the midst of loss, there is the gift of love.  My friends, God loves us and never leaves us.  Go into the world confident of God’s presence and God’s help and be determined to offer that same love and help for all.  Go, my friends.  God is coming and sometimes she comes through you!  Thanks be to God!  Amen!


God Be With You – Becky


Postlude








29 November 2020

posted Dec 2, 2020, 5:04 PM by Cameron Hubanks

Zwingli United Church of Christ

Paoli, Wisconsin

29 November 2020 – Advent 1

Isaiah 64:1-9


MIXED FEELINGS


Prelude – Becky


Good morning, and welcome to Advent worship at Zwingli United Church of Christ in Paoli, Wisconsin!


Most of you watching and listening in on this service are part of the community of this church.  But if someone has referred you to this site, or you just stumbled onto it, we want you to know how pleased we are to include you in our common walk of faith.  At Zwingli Church we always start worship by announcing that “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, YOU are welcome here!”  


Today (if you are watching on Sunday, November 29) is the first Sunday in Advent.  Advent is a 4-week period that leads up to Christmas.  Even in this pandemic-stricken year, I am sure most of you are already anticipating (or dreading) a long list of things to get done before Christmas Day.  The things on your to-do list – shopping and baking, decorating and card-writing, and so on – are common to the tasks that precede any big event.  But Advent isn’t about any of those things.  Advent is a time to get clearer about the presence of God.  During Advent we challenge ourselves to think clearly and deeply about the baby in the manger – and find ourselves in fascinated awe that the infinite and eternal God of the universe would choose to come to earth as a poor and helpless child, born to nobody parents in a nowhere kind of town.  Why would God do such a thing?  It is that question and others of similar ilk we will consider during these coming weeks.


In the meantime, we also do well to remind ourselves that the infant in the manger grew up.  He grew up to live a life of grace and teaching and challenge.  Sunday after Sunday we gather to consider his life and teaching because in so doing, we expect to be transformed into the people of God.  Join me in singing our opening song, “Open our Eyes, Lord, We Want to See Jesus.”


Open Our Eyes, Lord – Becky


Please join in this opening prayer:  Holiest God of presence and love, we would meet you today and be transformed by your grace.  Give us eyes to see things that are deeply true, but often misunderstood or even completely missed – things having to do with the ways you work in our world and in our lives.  This we pray in hope and determination, Amen!


In addition to the altar candles we light every week to remind ourselves that Christ is the Light of the World, during Advent we successively light wreathed candles to remind us symbolically of the gracious coming of God into this fractured and needy world – indeed, into our own fractured and needy lives.  We light this first candle in and to hope, for without hope we would be crushed by despair.  Gracious God, thank you for the hope of the Gospel!


Light Advent candle 1


Our opening hymn is a familiar Advent hymn of anticipation – Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.


Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus – 153 (verses 1&2)


The Old Testament prophets were especially attuned to the coming of God.  They lived among people who were inclined to pay lip service to the God of Israel, but mostly to live their lives by godless rules of selfish gain and winner take all.


Toward the end of the prophecies of Isaiah, there is a text in which the prophet longs for God’s coming, but at the same time trembles a bit at the thought of how God will react at the pervasive greed of the people.  We do well to listen carefully to these words – they might well have been spoken just for us:


Isaiah 64:1-9 – Read


Here’s another text – not a Biblical text, but words from a Christmas song we don’t sing in church, but you all know anyway:


He's making a list,
He's checking it twice,
He's gonna find out who's naughty or nice
Santa Claus is coming to town.

He sees you when you're sleeping
And he knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake.

You better watch out!
You better not cry
You better not pout, I'm telling you why
'Cause Santa Claus is coming to town.


Gracious God of presence and absence – show your face today and remake each of us into that for which you long for us to be, we pray in hope, Amen!


For many years I’ve noticed the similarities between “Santa Claus is Comin to Town” and the Christian teachings of Advent.  The song was probably written in 1934 during the depths of the depression.  The original version included verses never used today and it is assumed that the writers were mostly motivated to encourage generous sharing at a time in the nation’s history when physical need was so pervasive.  It seems the original point of the song was entirely well-intentioned.


To honest, however, in the context of today, the song seems a bit creepy to me.  It’s like Santa Claus is a peeping Tom, spying unbeknownst on children, and expecting to find them lacking and therefore undeserving of Santa’s largesse.


To be honest, I fear this is precisely how many people think of God.  God is perceived as a peeping Tom who quietly watches the lives of people and when they are caught in a moment of greed or cruelty, God springs to bring judgement and punishment.  By this thinking, Advent isn’t about hope – it’s a dire warning!  Watch out, foolish people:  God is watching and if you screw up, there’s gonna be a price to be paid, and it will be a whole lot worse than a lump of coal in your fireplace stocking!


There is probably an element of truth in this – but like many things that are partly (but ONLY partly) true, the partial truth is sometimes worse than an out-and-out lie.  


If the only point of Advent is to frighten us into righteousness, then Advent is an unworthy concept.  


Yes, Isaiah is right to observe that even our best humanly inspired acts amount to less than a pile of dirty rags.  Agreed.  But the point of this isn’t to frighten us, it’s to drive us to our knees in awe and gratefulness.  You see, the unambiguous teaching of Scripture, from the first pages of Genesis to the final teachings of the Revelation of John, from the lives of Adam and Eve to the lives of the saints in the last days – the unambiguous teaching of Scripture is that God knows perfectly well the failings and sin of humankind and in spite of that (unseemly) knowledge, God longs for humankind to risk opening ourselves to the embrace of God.  


God’s infinite awareness of human sin isn’t meant to crush us, it’s meant to become the foundation for awe, wonder and grateful love.  You see, God knows you better than your spouse, better than your parents and your children, better than your best friend.  God knows that ugly little secret that you thought you’d hidden from everyone and in spite of it all, God longs to hold you tight.  It isn’t that our sin is alright – it’s NOT alright.  But a big part of the message of Advent is that God knows and instead of holding it against you, God loves you deeply anyway.  God longs for you to look God straight on and acknowledge your need and then accept God’s gracious forgiveness and help to live a life worthy of God’s call.  


God would prefer not use God’s infinite knowledge of our failings to destroy us.  God would prefer to use that knowledge to evoke in each of us an amazed sense of wonder that we are still loved in spite of our objective unloveliness.  In fact, it isn’t just that God holds God’s nose and tolerates our moral stench – in reality, God is able to see deeply into our souls, able to see past the moral failures into something far deeper – the goodness that God put there on the day of creation.  


You see, we are not only flawed, but we are also wonderfully and beautifully made.  The wonder and beauty of our existence can only come to full flower as we admit the brokenness and allow God to hold us and evoke the good that has always been there but has been repressed under the overcoat of sin.  


Advent is about opening up to God so that we can be all that God knows we can be.  This is why there is no affirmation more hopeful than the affirmation of Advent expectation – Come, Lord Jesus.  Indeed, come Lord Jesus!


Please join in prayer:  God of expectation, we are often reluctant to come to you in honest transparency.  We fear that if we acknowledge our need, like Santa Claus, you might leave us nothing but coal.  By your Holy Spirit break through our damaged and self-protective thinking and give us the insight of the depths of your love.  Give us the courage to admit our need and thereby open ourselves to the full flower of the goodness that lives deep within each one of us.  By this risky choice, surprise us with deep joy and liberating love.


We are a community of concern and among those for whom we hold heartfelt concern are Esther Pulfer who has been recently in the hospital and Maggie Wittwen who continues to undergo cancer treatment.  Gracious God, continue to hold these two and others I have not named in your arms of healing and care.  


We pray for this world and for our nation.  May there be healing and a willingness to find common ground for the common good.  We pray for leaders and followers alike – may we all be sensitive to the call to do good for all humankind.  


Prayer is a mystery – a good and precious mystery, but a mystery nonetheless.  Given our limitations, we pause for silence during this time of prayer:


SILENCE


Now holy One, hear us as together we join our voices to recite the prayer of our Lord, saying: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom and the power and glory forever, Amen!”


Just a few announcements:


  • The Pastoral Search Committee continues to meet regularly – please keep them in your prayers.
  • The Church Council will meet this coming Wednesday evening at 7:00 pm.  Also keep them in your prayers.
  • The Confirmation class is coming near to the end of our whirlwind journey through Bible content and Christian theology.  There will be some sort of virtual rite of confirmation on, or around, December 20 – stay tuned for more information in that regard.  We will also receive other new members on the same day.  If you know someone who would like to join the church, please encourage them to be in touch with me!
  • There will be a virtual service of Christmas Eve worship posted to Facebook Live on Christmas Eve afternoon.  I hope you and your family will watch it together at whatever time best suits you.  Blessings!
  • Finally, next Sunday – December 6 – being the first Sunday of the month, will include communion.  Please be prepared with your own bread and wine.  


Our closing hymn celebrates God’s love.  It’s commonly thought of as a children’s song, but God’s fondest desire is for all of us to come to him in childlike adoration.  Please listen as Becky plays and then as I read, “Jesus Loves Me.”


Jesus Loves Me – 437 – verses 1 & 3


Now accept these words of benediction:  We are loved!  You are loved!  If we are willing to embrace the audacious promise that God sees past our brokenness to the deep wellsprings of goodness that lie within each of us, then there is no limit to the good we can bring to those around us who live in need of God’s healing touch.  My friends, as you head into the world this week, do so aiming to carry God’s love where it is needed most.  Go in joy, go in peace, go in hope, Amen!!


God Be With You – Becky


Postlude – Becky




22 November 2020

posted Nov 24, 2020, 1:09 PM by Cameron Hubanks

Zwingli United Church of Christ

Paoli, Wisconsin

22 November 2020

Ezekiel 24:11-16, 20-24, Matthew 25:31-46


Finding Jesus


Prelude – Becky


Good morning, and welcome to drive-in worship at Zwingli United Church of Christ in Paoli, Wisconsin!


The weather may be chilly (it is late November in Wisconsin, after all!), but we are still clear – “No matter who you are or where you may be on life’s journeys, you are welcome here!”


This morning we will consider two texts about sheep – one in which fat sheep are hogging the resources God intends to be shared with the entire flock, and another in which folk (like sheep and goats) are being separated based on how well they were able and willing to see the face of Jesus in those who (to be honest) seem to look nothing like Jesus.  


These texts (like so many in the Bible) fly in the face of normal, American values.  Americans like to expect people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps – Jesus expects those with advantages to pull up the ones who aren’t so advantaged.  Americans like to imagine that winners matter more than losers, but the New Testament teaches that God-like power is made perfect in weakness.  Americans like to celebrate those who can push others aside and make it to the top, but Jesus teaches that the first will be last and that the surest sign of spiritual health is the willingness to love enemies and to serve everyone – especially those we don’t like very much.


It is a tall order to live this way – that’s why we must keep our eyes on Jesus.  Without steadfastly attending to Jesus, we quickly lose our way.  To help us remember this, we begin worship week after week with the same little song, “Open our eyes, Lord.  We want to see Jesus.”  Please sing along!


Open Our Eyes, Lord – Becky


Please join me in prayer:  Gracious God, on this final Sunday of the church year, we are reminded of the danger of associating too closely with any human authority.  Ultimately, there is only one reliable king – Jesus the Christ.  As we offer our worship this morning, make us mindful of the joy that is offered to those who submit themselves to the Lordship of Christ.  Make us people who march to a different drumbeat – the drumbeat of sharing and grace and kindness and love and justice.  Make us followers of Jesus.  It is in his name that we pray, Amen!


Our opening hymn reminds us that we follow an enigmatic king – one described as a lamb, yet who created the entire universe.  Listen to these words of this hymn:


Crown Him with Many Crowns (317 – verses 1 & 3)

Our Scripture texts today are bit longer than usual.  They are important, so please bear with me as we read a text from the prophet Ezekiel and a story of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel:


Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Matthew 25:31-46


Gracious God, my words can never be more than human words, but by the intervention of your Holy Spirit, these human words can become words of life, hope and salvation.  This is our prayer – that these human words become yours and that in their hearing, we may find life.  This we ask in the name of Jesus, Amen!


Though you can’t see it, on my worship script, today’s service is titled “Finding Jesus.”  If you are a parent or grandparent, it’s likely you’ve watched the movie “Finding Nemo” child or grandchild at some point.  Nemo is an adolescent clownfish whose father frets at Nemo’s minor infirmity and overprotects him.  Nemo chaffs a bit at his Dad’s suffocating love and inadvertently gets seriously lost.  The movie becomes an account of the unlikely places where Dad (and his accomplice Dory) must travel to eventually experience reunion.  


Finding Jesus necessarily involves following Jesus into the unlikely.  Today’s story, as it is told by Jesus in our Gospel text is as well-known as it is pointed.  The gist of this Jesus story is an account of the basis upon which a transcendent monarch separates the human flock between those who will enjoy the benefits of eternal bliss with the king and those who are headed for eternal punishment.  The criteria for this sorting is the point of the story.  Those who are selected for eternity with the king are told they have been so chosen because of their habit to offer care for the king himself when he was in need.  Well, that’s wonderful and makes all kinds of sense, except for one little problem.  The ones so chosen have absolutely no recollection of ever having seen the king in need, let alone having cared for him.  At their expressions of ignorance, the king lets them in on a secret.  In day to day life, the king doesn’t look like a king – he (or she) looks like people in need.  The king looks like people who struggle to hold a job, people who come knocking at the borders of wealthy countries without the necessary papers to get in, people who are stricken with illness and for whom life seems always to be hard.  The folk being admitted to the fellowship of the king do a doubletake, - that was you?  We thought those were just folk for whom life is always hard.  And the king smiles and says, “Yes.  That’s right.  And they are – all of them – me, as well.  Enter into my palace.  You will be with me forever.”


But the king isn’t done:  There’s another group waiting for judgement.  They are apparently as hopeful as the first group.  It’s easy to imagine that these folk were in church every Sunday and always minded their p’s and q’s and have every reason to expect the king’s favor.  But the king looks them over and asks aloud, “Who are you?”  They respond a bit cautiously, “You know us!  We’re the ones who were always in church!” and the king sighs and announces, “Depart from me.  During life you saw me over and over and over again.  I was the poor person, always down on his luck.  I was the hungry family with always too many kids and never enough income.  I was the immigrant who you deported.  You never lifted a finger to help me.  It’s time we said goodbye to each other.”  


Do you suppose this mind-bending idea of Jesus was something new and novel?  Did Jesus make this up out of thin air?  Well, let me assure you, he did not.  One of the tragedies of human religion is how often things that should have been clear instead are clouded over and made hard to see.  Read carefully, the revelation of the ancient law-givers and prophets has always included the admonition to love and advance the welfare of the outsider.  When God choose Abraham to be his special and chosen child – God made clear that Abraham’s chosen-ness wasn’t merely for Abraham’s benefit – it was for the benefit of the whole world – the entire human community.  The trouble with being chosen – with living with blessing – is that it easily leads to foggy thinking and ultimately to selfishness and greed.  Blessing is intended to be gift for all.  But frequently blessing leads to fear – if I share too much, I’ll not have enough for myself.  Too often blessing leads to a sort of tribal thinking in which only folk like me really merit God’s blessing.  Is it any wonder that the contemporaries of the prophet Ezekiel treated him so badly?  What was his “sin?”  His sin was speaking the Word of God a bit too plainly!  He looked the wealthy of Israel in the eyes, compared them to the fat sheep of a shepherd’s flock, and announced that God had no use for them.  He pointed out that their wealth was obtained at the cost of the other sheep and that God wanted the ENTIRE flock to prosper – all of it, not just some of it.  These successful members of the flock imagined they would be praised for their hard work and shrewd practices.  They never imagined that in the value system of God, it is the welfare of ALL that matters most – not the welfare of some.  


In some ways, this is a harsh message.  It ends on a note that seems final and fatal.  The Good news, however, is that this is a parable.  It’s meant to smack all of us between the eyes and really get our attention.  And if we listen, it certainly does that.  The warning is certainly real and meant to be taken very, very seriously.  But make no mistake, Jesus is nothing if not gracious and forgiving, and if we set to mending our ways and start learning to see Jesus in all the places where we’d normally never expect to find him, we may find grace.  We WILL find grace.  This is the Good News!  It is the very best news.  We serve a king who is demanding and yet who loves everyone – including you and me!  Let us be about learning to love everyone as well as Jesus does.  Amen!


Please join me in prayer:  Holiest God, on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, we acknowledge our blessing with gratefulness and joy.  At the same time, we hear the message of Ezekiel with some fear and trembling.  Is it possible that our blessing has come as the expense of some who are hungry and thirsty and homeless?  We’d rather not think so, but Ezekiel thinks it could well be so.  Give us the courage to look carefully at the sources of our wealth.  Give us the courage to study history and sociology and politics and economics.  These are not places where some would expect to find Jesus, but Jesus shows up in the darnedest places.  Like the citizens of the king in Jesus’ parable, let us do right by all people – and if they eventually turn out to be Jesus – well, won’t that be wonderful!!??!!  And even if they are not (though they probably ARE!), still, there is the joy of having done right by all people!


Gracious God, our hearts ache for people made ill by COVID-19.  We ache for the families of 250,000 people who have died (just in our own country!) – all in the span of 8 short months.  We ache for health care workers who are pushed to the limits of their ability to care.  We ache for small business owners who are finding their livelihoods slip away.  We ache for parents who struggle to know how they can support their children while they study at home and still attend to their own work.  We ache for children for whom learning is hard enough in “normal” times and for whom it is even harder now.  We ache.  We ache.  We ache.   Help us find cause for thanksgiving.  Not a glib thanksgiving, but a thanksgiving deeply rooted in the love of God and the love of all humankind.  


Holy God, we come before you in silence for you have commanded us to be still and know that you are God.  We will now be still:  <silence>


And now we raise our voices together and pray as Jesus taught us, saying: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom and the power and glory forever, Amen!”


A few announcements:


  • There will be a very brief Thanksgiving Eve service conducted by Zoom videoconference at 7:00 pm Wednesday night.  If all goes well, it will also be on our Facebook page at the same time (and later).  Pray that God magnifies my technical skills so that this can happen as I intend.  There will be an email early this week with this necessary info to join the Zoom meeting.
  • In conjunction with the service of Confirmation later in December, there will be an opportunity for some older folk (older than the confirmands, I mean!) to become members of the church.  If you or someone you know has been intending to join the church, please be in touch with me!
  • This coming Saturday, November 28 is our monthly collection of non-perishables for the area food pantries.  You know the routine – here at the church building anytime between 10 am and noon.  God bless you!
  • And, as always, thank you for your ongoing financial support of the church.  Please continue to give generously.  


Our closing hymn reminds us that Jesus is destined ever and always to reign.  Jesus would have us join him in that reign.  Will we?  


Jesus Shall Reign – (#341, verses 1 & 3)


Please hear these words of commission and benediction:  Holy God of eternal rule, it boggles our minds to realize you intend for us to rule with you!  Give us divine x-ray vision so that we become supersensitive to those around us who are in need – who are Jesus – and who need a helping hand and a healing touch.  Send us into this week intending to heal the sick and feed the hungry and welcome the outcast.  As we do, we’ll find you joy, your peace, your love!  This will be good – it will be enough.  We are thankful!  Amen.


God Be With You – Becky


Postlude


 Zwingli United Church of Christ

Paoli, Wisconsin

22 November 2020

Ezekiel 24:11-16, 20-24, Matthew 25:31-46


Finding Jesus


Prelude – Becky


Good morning, and welcome to drive-in worship at Zwingli United Church of Christ in Paoli, Wisconsin!


The weather may be chilly (it is late November in Wisconsin, after all!), but we are still clear – “No matter who you are or where you may be on life’s journeys, you are welcome here!”


This morning we will consider two texts about sheep – one in which fat sheep are hogging the resources God intends to be shared with the entire flock, and another in which folk (like sheep and goats) are being separated based on how well they were able and willing to see the face of Jesus in those who (to be honest) seem to look nothing like Jesus.  


These texts (like so many in the Bible) fly in the face of normal, American values.  Americans like to expect people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps – Jesus expects those with advantages to pull up the ones who aren’t so advantaged.  Americans like to imagine that winners matter more than losers, but the New Testament teaches that God-like power is made perfect in weakness.  Americans like to celebrate those who can push others aside and make it to the top, but Jesus teaches that the first will be last and that the surest sign of spiritual health is the willingness to love enemies and to serve everyone – especially those we don’t like very much.


It is a tall order to live this way – that’s why we must keep our eyes on Jesus.  Without steadfastly attending to Jesus, we quickly lose our way.  To help us remember this, we begin worship week after week with the same little song, “Open our eyes, Lord.  We want to see Jesus.”  Please sing along!


Open Our Eyes, Lord – Becky


Please join me in prayer:  Gracious God, on this final Sunday of the church year, we are reminded of the danger of associating too closely with any human authority.  Ultimately, there is only one reliable king – Jesus the Christ.  As we offer our worship this morning, make us mindful of the joy that is offered to those who submit themselves to the Lordship of Christ.  Make us people who march to a different drumbeat – the drumbeat of sharing and grace and kindness and love and justice.  Make us followers of Jesus.  It is in his name that we pray, Amen!


Our opening hymn reminds us that we follow an enigmatic king – one described as a lamb, yet who created the entire universe.  Listen to these words of this hymn:


Crown Him with Many Crowns (317 – verses 1 & 3)

Our Scripture texts today are bit longer than usual.  They are important, so please bear with me as we read a text from the prophet Ezekiel and a story of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel:


Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Matthew 25:31-46


Gracious God, my words can never be more than human words, but by the intervention of your Holy Spirit, these human words can become words of life, hope and salvation.  This is our prayer – that these human words become yours and that in their hearing, we may find life.  This we ask in the name of Jesus, Amen!


Though you can’t see it, on my worship script, today’s service is titled “Finding Jesus.”  If you are a parent or grandparent, it’s likely you’ve watched the movie “Finding Nemo” child or grandchild at some point.  Nemo is an adolescent clownfish whose father frets at Nemo’s minor infirmity and overprotects him.  Nemo chaffs a bit at his Dad’s suffocating love and inadvertently gets seriously lost.  The movie becomes an account of the unlikely places where Dad (and his accomplice Dory) must travel to eventually experience reunion.  


Finding Jesus necessarily involves following Jesus into the unlikely.  Today’s story, as it is told by Jesus in our Gospel text is as well-known as it is pointed.  The gist of this Jesus story is an account of the basis upon which a transcendent monarch separates the human flock between those who will enjoy the benefits of eternal bliss with the king and those who are headed for eternal punishment.  The criteria for this sorting is the point of the story.  Those who are selected for eternity with the king are told they have been so chosen because of their habit to offer care for the king himself when he was in need.  Well, that’s wonderful and makes all kinds of sense, except for one little problem.  The ones so chosen have absolutely no recollection of ever having seen the king in need, let alone having cared for him.  At their expressions of ignorance, the king lets them in on a secret.  In day to day life, the king doesn’t look like a king – he (or she) looks like people in need.  The king looks like people who struggle to hold a job, people who come knocking at the borders of wealthy countries without the necessary papers to get in, people who are stricken with illness and for whom life seems always to be hard.  The folk being admitted to the fellowship of the king do a doubletake, - that was you?  We thought those were just folk for whom life is always hard.  And the king smiles and says, “Yes.  That’s right.  And they are – all of them – me, as well.  Enter into my palace.  You will be with me forever.”


But the king isn’t done:  There’s another group waiting for judgement.  They are apparently as hopeful as the first group.  It’s easy to imagine that these folk were in church every Sunday and always minded their p’s and q’s and have every reason to expect the king’s favor.  But the king looks them over and asks aloud, “Who are you?”  They respond a bit cautiously, “You know us!  We’re the ones who were always in church!” and the king sighs and announces, “Depart from me.  During life you saw me over and over and over again.  I was the poor person, always down on his luck.  I was the hungry family with always too many kids and never enough income.  I was the immigrant who you deported.  You never lifted a finger to help me.  It’s time we said goodbye to each other.”  


Do you suppose this mind-bending idea of Jesus was something new and novel?  Did Jesus make this up out of thin air?  Well, let me assure you, he did not.  One of the tragedies of human religion is how often things that should have been clear instead are clouded over and made hard to see.  Read carefully, the revelation of the ancient law-givers and prophets has always included the admonition to love and advance the welfare of the outsider.  When God choose Abraham to be his special and chosen child – God made clear that Abraham’s chosen-ness wasn’t merely for Abraham’s benefit – it was for the benefit of the whole world – the entire human community.  The trouble with being chosen – with living with blessing – is that it easily leads to foggy thinking and ultimately to selfishness and greed.  Blessing is intended to be gift for all.  But frequently blessing leads to fear – if I share too much, I’ll not have enough for myself.  Too often blessing leads to a sort of tribal thinking in which only folk like me really merit God’s blessing.  Is it any wonder that the contemporaries of the prophet Ezekiel treated him so badly?  What was his “sin?”  His sin was speaking the Word of God a bit too plainly!  He looked the wealthy of Israel in the eyes, compared them to the fat sheep of a shepherd’s flock, and announced that God had no use for them.  He pointed out that their wealth was obtained at the cost of the other sheep and that God wanted the ENTIRE flock to prosper – all of it, not just some of it.  These successful members of the flock imagined they would be praised for their hard work and shrewd practices.  They never imagined that in the value system of God, it is the welfare of ALL that matters most – not the welfare of some.  


In some ways, this is a harsh message.  It ends on a note that seems final and fatal.  The Good news, however, is that this is a parable.  It’s meant to smack all of us between the eyes and really get our attention.  And if we listen, it certainly does that.  The warning is certainly real and meant to be taken very, very seriously.  But make no mistake, Jesus is nothing if not gracious and forgiving, and if we set to mending our ways and start learning to see Jesus in all the places where we’d normally never expect to find him, we may find grace.  We WILL find grace.  This is the Good News!  It is the very best news.  We serve a king who is demanding and yet who loves everyone – including you and me!  Let us be about learning to love everyone as well as Jesus does.  Amen!


Please join me in prayer:  Holiest God, on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, we acknowledge our blessing with gratefulness and joy.  At the same time, we hear the message of Ezekiel with some fear and trembling.  Is it possible that our blessing has come as the expense of some who are hungry and thirsty and homeless?  We’d rather not think so, but Ezekiel thinks it could well be so.  Give us the courage to look carefully at the sources of our wealth.  Give us the courage to study history and sociology and politics and economics.  These are not places where some would expect to find Jesus, but Jesus shows up in the darnedest places.  Like the citizens of the king in Jesus’ parable, let us do right by all people – and if they eventually turn out to be Jesus – well, won’t that be wonderful!!??!!  And even if they are not (though they probably ARE!), still, there is the joy of having done right by all people!


Gracious God, our hearts ache for people made ill by COVID-19.  We ache for the families of 250,000 people who have died (just in our own country!) – all in the span of 8 short months.  We ache for health care workers who are pushed to the limits of their ability to care.  We ache for small business owners who are finding their livelihoods slip away.  We ache for parents who struggle to know how they can support their children while they study at home and still attend to their own work.  We ache for children for whom learning is hard enough in “normal” times and for whom it is even harder now.  We ache.  We ache.  We ache.   Help us find cause for thanksgiving.  Not a glib thanksgiving, but a thanksgiving deeply rooted in the love of God and the love of all humankind.  


Holy God, we come before you in silence for you have commanded us to be still and know that you are God.  We will now be still:  <silence>


And now we raise our voices together and pray as Jesus taught us, saying: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom and the power and glory forever, Amen!”


A few announcements:


  • There will be a very brief Thanksgiving Eve service conducted by Zoom videoconference at 7:00 pm Wednesday night.  If all goes well, it will also be on our Facebook page at the same time (and later).  Pray that God magnifies my technical skills so that this can happen as I intend.  There will be an email early this week with this necessary info to join the Zoom meeting.
  • In conjunction with the service of Confirmation later in December, there will be an opportunity for some older folk (older than the confirmands, I mean!) to become members of the church.  If you or someone you know has been intending to join the church, please be in touch with me!
  • This coming Saturday, November 28 is our monthly collection of non-perishables for the area food pantries.  You know the routine – here at the church building anytime between 10 am and noon.  God bless you!
  • And, as always, thank you for your ongoing financial support of the church.  Please continue to give generously.  


Our closing hymn reminds us that Jesus is destined ever and always to reign.  Jesus would have us join him in that reign.  Will we?  


Jesus Shall Reign – (#341, verses 1 & 3)


Please hear these words of commission and benediction:  Holy God of eternal rule, it boggles our minds to realize you intend for us to rule with you!  Give us divine x-ray vision so that we become supersensitive to those around us who are in need – who are Jesus – and who need a helping hand and a healing touch.  Send us into this week intending to heal the sick and feed the hungry and welcome the outcast.  As we do, we’ll find you joy, your peace, your love!  This will be good – it will be enough.  We are thankful!  Amen.


God Be With You – Becky


Postlude


 

25 October 2020

posted Oct 26, 2020, 9:00 AM by Cameron Hubanks

Zwingli United Church of Christ

Paoli, Wisconsin

25 October 2020

Matthew 22:34-46


The Greatest Commandments


Prelude - Becky


Welcome to worship with the people of Zwingli United Church of Christ in Paoli, Wisconsin.  We are a community of seekers, saved by the grace of God and committed to the proposition that God welcomes all people into the community of faith.  That being so, we begin worship by announcing that whoever you are and wherever you might be on life’s journey, YOU are welcome here!  Thanks for joining us!


The life of faith is not helter-skelter, unfocused and without boundaries.  We are, to put it directly, Jesus-people.  Or, at least, we aspire to be.  If being followers of Jesus is to realistically mean anything at all, then we must be people intent on knowing Jesus better so that his ways can become our ways.  To remind ourselves of the importance of this kind of life-long pursuit, we begin worship by singing a little song that expresses our intention to see and listen to Jesus.   The song is titled “Open Our Eyes, Lord, We Want to See Jesus.”  Please join in singing:


“Open Our Eyes, Lord” – Becky


Gracious God of creative love, though the freedoms you extend to us allow us many options for the living of life, we are cognizant that many of the paths we might choose (and sometimes DO choose) do not lead to life but rather ultimately to death.  Make us people of open eyes, open ears and open hearts.  Teach us that the ways of love are your desire for us and that in choosing love we choose life.  Make these minutes of worship a time of challenge and of hope, we pray in Christ’s name, Amen.


Our opening hymn is one of love – God’s love for each one of us.  Listen to the tune as Becky plays it through and then to the first two verses as I read them:


O Love That Will Not Let Me Go – 446 (verses 1 & 2)


Our scripture text today follows closely that of last week.  These two stories closely parallel each other – it is the final week of Jesus’ life and his adversaries – the temple leaders – are seeking any excuse to turn him over to the Roman authorities for execution.  In the face of their malice, the content of today’s story is almost unspeakably powerful.  In the face of jealously, fear and anger – Jesus commends love.  Earlier in his life – in the teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus commended love for enemies.  In this text, Jesus gives us a glimmer of insight into what love for enemies looks like in the stress of a deeply troubled situation.  Listen carefully to these words from Matthew, chapter 22.


Matthew 22:34-46 – Read


Gracious God, we stand in need of your word.  That being so, make the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts pleasing to you and helpful for growing the realm of Christ.  This we pray in hope, Amen!


What’s the most stressful situation you’ve ever faced?  Perhaps, like me, you think of important job interviews, or difficult conversations with a physician about your health, or that of someone you love.  Maybe the stressful situation that comes to mind has to do with a lender who held power over your farm or business.  Stress comes in many sizes and shapes – it can range from the stress of announcing love for the very first time, to saying goodbye to a partner one has loved for decades.


In our text today, Jesus is facing the stress of knowing that he is surrounded by people who are plotting his death.  I’ve known the stress of conversing with folk who did not wish me well, but (to my knowledge, at least), I’ve never had to converse with folk who are plotting my death.  


Samuel Johnson, the famous 18th Century English writer commented that “the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully.”  In Jesus’ case, it was crucifixion rather than hanging, but I suppose there isn’t much practical difference.  


In spite of Johnson’s assertion, I fear that were I in Jesus’ situation – confronted by malicious enemies who are seeking evidence to condemn him – I might not be up to my very best thinking.  As it turns out, however, Jesus was, and consequently we are possessed of teaching that has and must shape the church from that day forward.  


The question put to Jesus is simple:  Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?  It was certainly not controversial that Jesus should respond with the imperative to love God with heart, soul and mind.  What’s breathtaking is that without missing a beat, Jesus takes his own response and makes it practical and inescapable.  The second command, says Jesus, is to love your neighbor as yourself.  And then, to ensure that his point is not missed, he asserts that on these two commands the entire body of Torah and prophetic word rests – the entirety of scripture as it then existed was summarized in these two imperatives.  


There are any number of ways to follow-up on this simple, and forceful exposition of divine expectation.  One way would be to follow the example of the Gospel writer Luke.  Luke tells this story in a slightly different way.  Luke puts the question and response a bit earlier in the ministry of Jesus, and Luke has the questioner follow up with a seemingly sensible query, “Ah yes, Jesus.  But who, precisely, is my neighbor?”  In response, of course, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan.  The interpretation of the parable is subject to many nuances, but certainly Jesus is making clear that your neighbor ISN’T merely the person who lives down the road – your neighbor is anyone you might realistically assist.  The fact is, when we restrict our understanding of “neighbor” to people like us, we deny the plain teaching of Jesus.  Jesus insists that neighbors are as often as not, people NOT like you and me.  Neighbors are people of color, immigrants and other border-crossers, people who live on the wrong side of the tracks.  To put it bluntly, neighbors – in the mind of Jesus, at least – are frequently people we don’t much care for.  


To return to the teaching as we find it in Matthew’s Gospel, we might gasp as we think of other ways to understand what’s happening here.  In some measure, I’m pretty sure, Jesus is making himself a neighbor to the Pharisees who are seeking his death, and making them his neighbor, as well.  In making himself a neighbor to the Pharisees, he is offering them a last-ditch chance to repent of their murderous intentions and make common cause with him in offering the realm of God to those in need.  And similarly, he is neighbor to them by his gracious teaching.  Though the words aren’t actually spoken, it is still implied, “My enemies (and therefore, my friends and therefore my neighbors), because I love you I am offering you God’s divine Word of grace – Love God and love your neighbor.”  It is stunning.  


It is unspeakably sad that they refused the gracious offer of Jesus.  God, of course, is never thwarted by the stubborn willfulness of humankind and in the very act of defying God by sinfully contributing to the death of Jesus, they inadvertently contributed to God’s gracious provision of life through the death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus.  We must, however, assume that it was never the preference of the Divine that Jesus should be killed, but we should also assume that God was not surprised by the depths of human sinfulness and that God showed the depths of God’s love and power by using the fundamentally evil act of Christ’s crucifixion to become the tool of ultimate salvation.  


My friends, God is still about the work of turning bad into good.  And, as Jesus made clear in today’s story, God would be delighted if we would cooperate with him in this holy work of loving God and therefore of loving neighbor.  In our baptisms, we were immersed into Jesus and delivered over to him for whatever work he desires.  We will never be forced into that work but God waits with bated breath for the baptized – for you and me – to show that we really do love God by choosing to put on our work boots and work gloves and love people who others would prefer be ignored – or even deported!  


By God’s grace we are invited to love God and love neighbor.  It is not some terrible and odious burden to do so – it is an offer of grace.  Love God and love neighbor.  Your life will never be quite so meaningful as when you do.  God bless you!  Amen!


Please join me in prayer:  Holy God of tenderness and compassion – we realize that it is your deepest desire that your people should dare to follow Jesus in ways of risky love.  Give us eyes to see those in need and creativity to understand how we may be of service.  Not only that but give us insight to understand our own need and the humility to allow others who we may not even really like to serve us.  


Gracious God, though it is still a week before All Saints Day, we lift before you those of our congregation who have died and gone to be with You during this last year.  We remember with gratefulness the lives of Bev Jabs, Jack Wittwer, Jan Brown, and Marcus Bovre.  We remember others who have died – individuals who were not members of this congregation – but who were loved by our people as well.  Gracious God, we give you thanks for all these people and ask your ongoing healing and comfort for their loved ones.  


We also pray for others in need:  For the sister of Kathy Johnson who is facing a life-threatening health situation, and for the granddaughter of Jeanette Bossingham as this young family faces the stresses of a COVID-19 diagnosis.  For these and others, we offer our prayers.  


Prayer comes in many forms – hear us now in the prayer of silence:  <SILENCE>


Just as you hear us in the discipline of silence, you hear us when we join our voices – even when we are separated, you still hear us as one, so we pray in confidence, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom and the power and glory forever, Amen!”


A few announcements:

  • As you will read soon in the November newsletter, our collective cash gifts to area food pantries and to the Auxiliary of the New Glarus Homes this summer and early fall amounted to over $3000.  God bless you!  This doesn’t even include the significant gift to New Glarus Homes from the proceeds of the recent Guild breakfast, nor does it include the value of food and household goods that you donate to the area food pantries.  God is pleased, I’m sure.  Please continue your generosity!  Our next collection of food for the food pantries will be this Saturday from 10 am until noon here at the church building.  God bless you!
  • Please remember to sell (and buy!) raffle tickets for the upcoming Guild virtual bazaar.  And visit the auction website to bid on the items found there.  If you need the auction website address, go to the church Facebook page and you’ll find it there.  The deadline for all of this is 6 PM on Friday, November 6.
  • As we all know, the national election is a week from Tuesday.  If you haven’t already voted (I have!) don’t fail to do so.  Oh yes, use your vote in a way that will please God.  
  • Finally, I will be taking some vacation for the next 3 Sundays.  There will still be a worship service posted each Sunday on the Facebook page, but it won’t be from here.  If a pastoral need arises, contact Council President Faith Wittwer.   She will be able to see that you are cared for!  I’ll “see” you again on Sunday, November 22, which, God and weather willing, will be another parking lot/drive in worship service.  Make a note of it and pray for good weather!


Our closing hymn is a moving hymn of commitment and intention: “Won’t You Let Me Be Your Servant.”  Listen to these important words which are obviously related to today’s text:


Will You Let Me Be Your Servant – 391 (verses 1, 4 & 5)


Now hear these word of commissioning and benediction:  People of God, you are invited to enter this new week with the assurance of God’s peace.  But God’s peace does not mean complacency – not at all.  We are commissioned to carry the love of Christ to neighbors at every turn.  Give us eyes to see in the way Jesus sees.  Give us courage to act with the courage of Christ.  So, my friends, go into this week with joy and determination to serve the Lord.  Go in love!  Amen!


God Be With You – Becky


Postlude - Becky

18 October 2020

posted Oct 26, 2020, 8:59 AM by Cameron Hubanks

Zwingli United Church of Christ

Paoli, Wisconsin

18 October 2020

Matthew 22:15-22


Render to Caesar


Prelude – Becky


Good morning and welcome to worship.  Here at Zwingli United Church of Christ we open our gatherings by reminding others and ourselves that no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journeys, you are welcome here.  The human story is littered with accounts of outsider-suspicion and conflict and war born of bigotry and fear of those who are not us.  But followers of Jesus march to the beat of a different drummer.  Instead of fearing and ostracizing the outsider, we try to be like Jesus who was curious about those he didn’t already know and took the trouble to spend quality time with those most of his fellow Jews considered to be sinners – people to be avoided rather than embraced.  If Jesus behaved that way, how can strive for anything less?  I don’t believe we can.  


This is why we begin worship by asking God’s Spirit to always and ever give us eyes to see Jesus more clearly – for in seeing Jesus more clearly, we will be able to follow Jesus more closely.  The words are simple – Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus.  Please sing or follow along:


Open Our Eyes, Lord – Becky


Let’s pray together:  Tender God of warm embrace and lofty expectation, we often fail in following you.  We too easily excuse our own failures yet remain stoutly resistant to forgiving the failings of others.  Help us hold ourselves to ever higher standards while we extend generous grace to others.  Help us see Jesus so clearly that our lives become mirrors of his values and his ways.  This we ask in faith, Amen!


Our opening hymn is an old spiritual – Lord, I Want to Be A Christian.  The words are simple – the intention is deep.  Let us each make this our pledge for living:


Lord, I Want to Be a Christian – 457 (verses 4 & 2)


After spending worship time with Job in the late summer and then with Moses and the children of Israel in the early fall, we will spend the next few weeks in Matthew’s gospel considering a few of the important teachings of Jesus before we head into Advent at the very end of November.  Our text this morning is set near the end of Matthew’s gospel – these stories immediately precede the crisis in which Jesus will be unjustly arrested and ultimately executed.  Today’s story is one piece of the conspiracy in which a case is being built against Jesus so that he can be condemned in a way that will pass muster with the Roman authorities and not unduly arouse the populace.  The story is set in the temple and in it Jesus is invited to address a thorny theological and political question.  The question is obviously insincere – it is meant to trap Jesus.  Listen to the story as Matthew relates it:


Matthew 22:15-22 – Read


Let’s pray:  Give us ears to hear and hearts to embrace whatever you want for us, loving God.  This we pray in faith, Amen.


The Bible is a big collection of all kinds of literature.  Some of it is hard to understand, but an awful lot isn’t hard to understand at all.  Today’s story – to be honest – is uncomfortably easy to understand.  The dilemma facing any preacher dealing with this text isn’t decoding something obscure and difficult – the task is rather one of discomfort.  What Jesus said to his questioners isn’t at all difficult to understand– but it is certainly challenging to practice.  Let’s dig into it a bit.


First of all, even if the words of Jesus aren’t all that difficult, it’s important to grasp their context.  These words are powerful even when they stand naked of context, but in context they are, if anything, even more powerful.  We must take pains not to miss their context.  


It’s essential to note that this exchange happens during what we call “Holy Week.”  The triumphal entry – what we call Palm Sunday – has already happened.  Jesus’ implied claim of servant-based leadership (his entry into the city riding a lowly beast of burden – a donkey) resides heavily in many minds.  His claim of royal authority was fairly obvious but making that claim by riding a donkey was provocatively confusing.  He may be self-identifying as a king – but not like any king his contemporaries had ever imagined.  The Jewish authorities were highly attentive to whatever he was intending to say.  Remember:  the Jewish authorities only held positions of power so long as the real authorities – Roman magistrates – permitted that authority.  Local governmental officials were not elected by the locals – they were appointed by outsiders.  And everyone knew that these local officials would only maintain their privileged positions so long as the real authorities – those in Rome – were satisfied with the outcomes of their local rule.  And what did Rome expect?  It’s pretty basic and obvious:  They expected order.  They expected civil order and they expected economic order (which principally meant the collection of whatever taxes Rome decreed should be paid).


The local authorities – and in Palestine that meant priests and other temple officials – were well aware of how shaky their positions might be.  Make no mistake, they harbored no love for the Romans – but neither could they risk offending them.  And one obvious threat to their good standing with their overlords would be upstart figures who rocked the status quo.  To put it bluntly, just about everyone hated the Romans, but some people lived lives of privilege by holding their noses and cooperating with the Romans.  To do that meant making certain that the passions that resided among the everyday folk would be kept in check.  The religious authorities walked a tightrope everyday – they shared the generalized disdain for the Romans, but they dared not allow that disdain to get out of control, because if they did, it would be their own necks on the chopping block.


In that context, it becomes easy to see why Jesus is seen as being so dangerous.  Without even a wink and a nod, he claims authority for himself.  This, the temple authorities knew, couldn’t be permitted.  For a while they tolerated him, hoping he’d not stir up too much trouble, but after his enigmatic entry into the city on Sunday it’s clear they had come to a consensus among themselves – he had to go.


But, of course, like most local authorities, they hadn’t so much authority that they could eliminate him by themselves.  They needed to build a case – they needed to demonstrate that he wasn’t just locally irritating – they needed to demonstrate that Jesus was likely to challenge Rome itself and therefore should be executed as a traitor.  It needed to be demonstrated that he was seditious.  


And so, stooges were sent to him with embarrassing questions.  Questions that would trip him up no matter how he answered – questions that if answered one way would offend the people, and if answered a different way would offend Rome.  That’s where today’s question comes from – Is it legitimate to pay taxes to Rome?  People have ALWAYS hated paying taxes – and it’s even worse when the taxes are paid for no obvious local benefit.  The Jews – like all Roman subjects – despised paying the taxes Rome levied on them.  Consequently, the question put to Jesus was a no-brainer:  Is it legal (religiously legal) to pay the Roman tax?  It’s a no win set-up:  If Jesus says it is legal, then he’ll lose credibility with the people and if he says it’s not legit – then they can take that answer to the Roman authorities and have him convicted of sedition.  


But Jesus was no fool.  Confronted with an insincere question, he turned it back on his questioners:  “Show me the coin used to pay the tax.”  They showed him one – the denarius was a coin with the likeness of the emperor on it.  For a Jew, of course, this is a graven image – the coin itself is a violation of the ten commandments.  Did one of his questioners have this coin in his pocket?  Right there in the temple?  Yikes!!


In any case, Jesus answers with words that are crystal clear in meaning, but useless for the purposes of his questioners.  “Whose picture is this?”  Well, duh!!  It’s the emperor.  “Well then,” says Jesus, “give to the emperor whatever belongs to him, but be sure to give to God whatever belongs to God.”  


If Jesus had only stated the first part of this response, we might legitimately debate what really belongs to the emperor – to governments and businesses and even churches – but the second part of the response makes the first part trivial.   After all, what belongs to God?  Everything belongs to God.  Everything.  Period.  


To be clear – Jesus isn’t saying we needn’t pay our taxes.  I think it’s clear that Jesus – in in a different situation – would probably say, “Of course you should pay your taxes.”  But even when you pay your taxes, remember, really it all belongs to God.  This is why it is undoubtedly true to say that there is no surer sign of the state of one’s soul than that which is revealed by a look at one’s checkbook or one’s investment accounts or one’s credit card statement.  If it all belongs to God, do we use it ways that God would find pleasing?  This does not mean we give all our money to the church – but certainly it means we give generously to God’s work.  It certainly doesn’t mean we don’t buy food, clothing, housing and even entertainment – but certainly it means we buy food, clothing and entertainment that fit with Godly values.  


Give to human authorities that which is rightfully theirs (which probably isn’t much) and give to God that which is God’s.  These are our marching orders.  This is the gospel of our Lord.  Thanks be to God.  Amen!


Join me in prayer:  Demanding God of long-suffering patience, we confess our slowness to learn your ways.  Help us be more like Peter who learned slowly but learned deeply.  Undoubtedly, he was with Jesus in the temple that day and saw and heard what Jesus taught.  He lived through the disaster of Jesus’ trial and death and yet down the road when it was his turn to be dragged before those same religious authorities, he boldly announced, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”  Help us learn Peter’s lesson.  Help us learn that even if government says we must do a, b or c – if a, b or c doesn’t match the righteousness of God, we must say “no.”  Give us courage and determination to be people of our baptisms – people who obey you and thereby have a hand in transforming human society in the realm of God.  


God of healing grace, we lift before you friends, family members, neighbors and others who stand in need of hope and healing.  May you be with all who suffer – may all those who hurt be touched by your healing hand.  


We pray for our nation and for our world.  As we approach an election unlike any we have ever known, give us the insight to use our voices and vote to stand up for those Jesus would stand up for – the poor and hurting and outcast and despised.  


Sometimes silence is the most powerful form of prayer – please hear us in the silence of these moments:  


<silence>


Now hear us as we join our voices to pray as Jesus taught us, saying, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom and the power and glory forever, Amen!”


A few announcements:

  • As we approach the end of the month, it’s a good time to remind you that our monthly collection of food and household items for the area food banks will happen on Saturday, October 31.  Bring your contributions to the church entryway between 10 am and noon that day or send an extra cash contribution along with your gift for the support of the church.  Thank you!
  • If you are watching this live, please consider driving by First UCC in Belleville before 2 pm today for a take-out tailgate lunch!  Bless you!
  • And finally, blessings to all of you who faithfully continue your financial support of the church.  Your gifts are a blessing.  Thank you!


Our closing hymn reminds us that it is good to aspire to replicate Christ’s mind in our own.  Listen carefully to these important words of meditation and intention:


May the Mind of Christ, My Savior – 464 (verses 1-4)


Now hear these words of benediction:  People of God.  You are loved and commissioned by Christ to carry God’s Good News of love, forgiveness and hope everywhere you go.  It is a privilege to thusly represent Christ.  Go on your way with joy and grace.  God will be with you.  God will empower you.  Thanks be to God!  Go in peace.  Amen!


God Be With You – Becky


Postlude – Becky






11 October 2020

posted Oct 14, 2020, 6:11 AM by Cameron Hubanks

Zwingli United Church of Christ

Paoli, Wisconsin

11 October 2020 (recorded 20201008)

Ephesians 4:1-9


THINK & ACT THESE WAYS


Prelude – Becky


Greetings, and welcome to worship at Zwingli United Church of Christ.  The text we will consider today commends a certain kind of thinking and behaving.  In a word, we are encouraged to live lives of grace, kindness and gentleness.  These attitudes and behaviors ought to prompt reflection and humility – the kind of humility that pushes judgement to the side and creates curiosity about others rather than hostility.  This is why we strive for openness and grace in our approach to others.  It prompts us to assert that “whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here!”


This kind of openness is learned from Jesus.  Jesus, after all, is the exemplar of openness to and embrace of those many find objectionable.  If we are to follow Jesus in his love of all, we need to have our eyes opened to his ways of living rather than to the ways we may have learned from other sources.  This is why we start worship by singing together, “Open Our Eyes, Lord, We Want to See Jesus!”


Open Our Eyes, Lord – Becky


Let us pray:  Gracious God of surprising embrace – we are often more certain of our judgments about others than you seem to be.  Remind us that we do not get to decide who ought to be loved – that is your right.  Help us swallow our certainties and humbly walk beside your son, Jesus, who may teach us ways of living that enrich life for all.  We ask this prayer in hope, Amen.


Our opening hymn asks that God speak to us, so that we may speak as God speaks.  Hear these important words of intention:


Lord, Speak to Me – 593 (verses 1 & 3)


Our text today comes from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi.  It is a familiar text, and a practical text.  Like all of the New Testament, we must be cautious about asserting with certainty the circumstances of the writer, but it does seem likely that Paul writes – at least some of this letter – while imprisoned.  If so, these may be words written toward the end of his life.  This text certainly carries the tone of a man who has lived through much and is distilling a life of accumulated experience into a few words of deep wisdom.  Listen carefully to Paul’s appeal to the people at Philippi – and therefore, the Holy Spirit’s appeal to you and to me:  


Philippians 4:1-9 - READ


Holiest God of grace, kindness and patience:  We live in days of anger and shrill voices.  Some of those voices claim to be those of right religion and holy necessity.  Give us the courage to swim against the currents of our angry age.  Teach us the wisdom of kindness and grace.  Teach us the value of lowering our voices rather than raising them.  Teach us the way of Jesus, we pray humbly, Amen.


Of all the foolishness taught in the name of Jesus, certainly high on the list would be the idea that Jesus cares more about what we say we believe rather than how we live.  You may recall that Jesus once taught a parable about a man with two sons – one who promised to do what the father asked, but didn’t, and the other who verbally refused the request of his father, but eventually did so.  This parable is complicated, but clearly it teaches at minimum that merely saying the right words counts for very little – actions matter more than words.  


The letter to the church at Philippi is probably a combination of several letters.  It is one of the small number of books which almost all commentators suspect was actually written by Paul himself.  


The objection that many will raise is that right behavior cannot save us, and certainly that objection is true.  But if right behavior cannot save people, (that is works), then obviously neither can right thinking.  Thinking is no less a human work than is behavior.  The fact is, humans are saved by the gracious kindness of God – not by anything you or I might think or do.  The supposition that the faith by which we are saved is a matter of thinking a certain way about God, or theology or the Bible, or whatever, is transparently wrong.  Humans cannot and will not be saved by works – whether the work is a good deed or a good idea.  We are saved by God’s gracious love – period.  End of story.


In his letter to the Roman church (undoubtedly written long before this letter), this same apostle, Paul, went to great lengths to demolish the kind of religion which is based on human effort – whether physical effort or mental effort.  But without missing a step, Paul moved immediately into the realm of behavior.  To put it simply, if salvation is not a matter of human effort, then does it follow that any and all human behaviors and ways of thinking are fine – to put it as Paul did, that we may as well sin much so that grace might abound.  Paul found this suggestion abhorrent.  No human activity will ever save any person, but those who have come into a gracious relationship with God will be changed from the inside out – and the evidence of that change will be seen both in thinking and acting.  So, the thinking and the acting cannot save, but the thinking and the acting CAN be evidence of salvation.  


That, my friends, is what Paul is getting at in our text this morning.  It is grounded in actual nuts and bolts living.  The two women mentioned – Euodia and Syntyche – are real people struggling with their distaste for each other.  I don’t know what exactly made them find each other difficult – but it was something big enough to cause a relational rift – a rift between the two of them, and apparently in the community of the church.  And that division was a matter important enough – dangerous enough, we might say – to merit Paul’s comment.  And Paul’s comment is this:  People of Philippi Church:  your calling as people of grace is to heal divisions – not to ignore them, and certainly not to make them worse.  For Paul, it is obvious that any human division, but particularly a division in the church, is a matter requiring attention and remediation.  Why?  Because God is a God of (to quote the text) truth, honor, justice, purity, pleasure, commendation, excellence, and praiseworthiness.  It’s a remarkable list.  And clearly it’s not intended to be exhaustive.  In another place Paul teaches a similar imperative by commending a similar list of traits which we call “the fruit of the Spirit:” Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  


Again, these are not traits that save us – these traits are evidence that we have been saved.  


So, what difference does all of this make to you and me?  I think it’s fairly simple:  You and I are called to be agents of peace and reconciliation.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t entitled to opinions; we certainly are – even mandated to form Godly opinions.  The Gospel, if it means anything, leads to conviction about human behavior, and community values.  As people of faith, we are not only entitled to critique businesses and governments and schools and, yes, churches, we are mandated to offer such critique.  But we are mandated to offer our critique in ways that honor the other.  And anytime we come face to face with those who fail to respect others – we must be willing to oppose that lack of respect, respectfully.  Will that be easy?  Usually not.  But what important thing has ever been easy?  Nothing I can imagine.  The life of faith is not easy – but it is essentially important and therefore it matters.  


To be as direct as possible – we live in nation divided and the majority of us consider ourselves to be Christian.  This is scandalous.  Paul – to say nothing of Jesus – would not expect us to agree on all the difficult social, political, and medical issues we face as a nation, but Paul – and Jesus – would demand that we learn to disagree with honor and respect.  To the extent we find it impossible to do so, then that is the extent to which we stand in need of salvation.  


To say it again – we called to be agents of kindness, respect and humility.  Let us be about our calling.  Let us be Christ in this difficult day.  This is our mandate.  With God’s help we can do it.


Let us pray:  Holy God of kindness and hope – you have called us to ministries of peacemaking and unity.  You have not called us to think identically, but you have called us to respect all people – especially those with whom we disagree – as fellow pilgrims as much created in the image of God as am I.  Help us understand how to hold strong opinions while still respecting and loving those with whom we disagree.  Help us learn to reject the leadership of those who appeal to our more negative instincts, even while we honor and pray for them.  This mandate seems impossibly difficult – give us your Spirit to enable us to follow Jesus in this regard.  


Holy God – we pray for those who are hurting, whether physically, emotionally, financially, or whatever.  You are the God of the healing touch:  We pray for Brandon Legler as he recuperates from serious injury and extensive surgery.  Grace him and his family with your love.


Each of us carries with us concerns – for others or for ourselves – hear us in the silence of these moments:


<silence>


Now hear us as we pray as Jesus taught us, saying, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom and the power and glory forever, Amen!”


A few announcements:  


  • There will be no confirmation class on Sunday morning – the class will resume at 10:30 am on Sunday, October 18.  Please keep the class – and adult guides – in your prayers.
  • Also, please, keep the Pastoral Search Committee in your prayers.  Their work is important and challenging.  Your support will make it go better.
  • Your gifts for the support of the church are so important and you have been so faithful in your support.  God bless you.   Remember that there are many others in need during these days.  You can offer support by including a gift for the area food pantries with your gift for the church.  Thank you!
  • The Belleville Area CROP Walk for hunger relief will happen this month.  Please consider a gift in support of this important ministry.


Our closing hymn reminds us that we are called to partner with each other and with God in bringing the values of the realm of God into every day living.  The hymn is “Called as Partners in Christ’s Service.”  Make this your prayer and intention for this week and every week!  God bless you!


Called as Partners in Christ’s Service – 581 (verses 1 & 4)


Now hear these words of benediction:  Demanding God of tender compassion – what you ask of us seems impossible.  We are surrounded by anger and division no matter where we turn.  Help us grasp that you invite us into the exhilarating joy of bringing people together in the name of Jesus.  Give us courage and creativity to do so.  Make us instruments of your peace, we pray in hope, Amen!


God Be With You – Becky


Postlude – Becky






4 October 2020

posted Oct 14, 2020, 6:09 AM by Cameron Hubanks

Zwingli United Church of Christ

Paoli, Wisconsin

4 October 2020

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20


Sez Who?


Prelude – Becky


Good morning!  Welcome to drive-in worship at Zwingli United Church of Christ.  Whether you are in your car here at the church building, or at your home or somewhere else, we are pleased to welcome you to join us in worship.  It is our goal to welcome all.  As we put, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here!”  Thanks for joining us!


Today’s Biblical text introduces us to God’s law.  For many, the 10 commandments are nothing more than arbitrary rules laid down by God to show humans who’s the boss.  Such a view falls well short of what Jesus himself thought of God’s law.  We’ll be thinking about the 10 Commandments today and wrapping up with the thoughts of Jesus himself about God’s law.  We end with Jesus because he is the ultimate giver of life and as his followers we are seeking to make his life our life and his values our values.  This is why we begin worship every week by singing together, “Open Our Eyes, Lord.  We want to see Jesus.”  Please join in singing, or at least in meditating on these words:


Open Our Eyes, Lord - Becky


Americans – both Christian and not – are famously self-directed.  We are a people who chaff at being told what to do.  That undoubtedly is a part of the reason that this nation, with just 4% of the world’s population, has suffered 20% of the world’s COVID-19 deaths.  We hate being told what to do – even when it’s in our own best interest.  As long ago as 1776 – at the outset of the Revolutionary War – an American General from South Carolina designed a flag depicting a coiled rattlesnake with the slogan, “Don’t tread on me.”  From the earliest days of this nation, the spirit of “ain’t no one going to tell me what to do” has been strong.  


But one compelling way to understand the Biblical story – from Genesis through the Revelation of John – is as God’s powerful invitation to lay aside self-direction (which ultimately leads to human conflict – everything from interpersonal and family conflict to warfare between nations) and submit to the gracious wisdom of God – a wisdom which commends community.  It isn’t that individualism has no place, but the Biblical call to community is strong and seems clearly intended to temper and manage individual prerogative.  To put it differently, individualism seems to come naturally to human beings and may be related to our inherent sinfulness – the embrace of community, however, must be learned and serves to temper the excesses of individual impulse.  God seems ever and always to be inviting us into community.  


From the first pages of the Bible we are presented with the tragic consequences of individualism run amok – the murder of Abel by his brother Cain illustrates the antiquity of the problem.  In our text today, we get a powerful taste of God’s antidote for the dangers of individualism.  It is in the so-called 10 commandments that we find a compelling divine invitation to lay aside the destructive instincts of individualism and instead to adopt the disciplines of a robust form of community in which the welfare of the other is deemed just as valuable as my own welfare.  


Before we read the text, listen to the music and words of this opening hymn: a hymn which well introduces the topic of God’s law (which may be understood as God’s “Word”) and which also introduces communion, which we will observe together at the conclusion of this service:


Break Now the Bread of Life – 665 (verses 1 & 3)


Our scripture text this morning is that of the account of the 10 commandments as found in the book of Exodus chapter 20 (there is another, slightly different account of the commandments elsewhere in the Pentateuch).  Please listen carefully for God’s voice in these words:


Read:  Exodus 20 – excerpts (separate sheet)


Please pray with me:  Gracious God of patience and broken heart – you long for your children to know peace, love and fullness of life.  But in our wanton selfishness, we are more inclined to disregard the disciplines of following you in favor of the momentary pleasures of imagining that we know better than do you how human life is best lived.  Forgive us this sin and woo us into the paths of Jesus, we pray humbly, Amen.


One of the most famous lines of careless parenting is, “Because I said so.”  I suppose it is because many of us are so lazy, that instead of explaining the reasons for our directions, we resort to the easier, “Because I said so.”  I suspect it is precisely because this lazy form of explanation is so popular with humans that we imagine it is also a part of God’s repertoire.  But let us be clear:  God does not lay down lay just to show that God is boss.  God gives law as a gracious gift of goodwill.  God gives law because left to our own devices, humans inevitably mess things up, and God wants better for us and for all humanity.  God gives law for our welfare – plain and simple.  God NEVER gives law just to show who’s in charge.  


In the case of the 10 Commandments, it more or less boils down to this:  The first 4 commands teach us how to relate with God – you shall have no other gods, don’t make idols, don’t use God’s name casually, and remember to follow God’s example in taking time for worship and rest.  These 4 commands remind us that we cannot be god – when humans take the place of God, it always turns out badly.  That’s why we must listen for Jesus, because if we don’t, we slip into making ourselves, or some entertainer or politician, or perhaps our wealth into a god.  But deifying anything or anyone other than the one true God always turns out badly.  Don’t do it.


The last 6 commands teach us how to relate with other humans – honor your parents, don’t commit murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t take that which isn’t yours, don’t lie, don’t even covet.  It isn’t that these 6 are somehow magic – they illustrate the principle of thinking as highly of others as you would think of yourself.  They are the foundation for the New Testament principle we’ve come to call the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”  In fact, this principle is found in all the major religions, and Jesus himself taught it in the Sermon on the Mount where he asserted that the whole of the law and the prophets is summed up nicely in that rule.  


On another occasion a lawyer came to Jesus and asked which commandment was the most important.  It’s not likely he was restricting Jesus to the 10 commandments – Judaism affirms hundreds of rules as comprising Torah – the law.  But Jesus refused to be so tied down.  Instead Jesus in essence said, “they are ALL important – not any one of them on their own, mind you, but in the sense that when taken together they teach, ‘Love God – love your neighbor.’”


And there it is – Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Humans, of course, love loopholes, and when the attorney who questioned Jesus heard his answer, he immediately wondered, “But who is my neighbor.”  In response Jesus taught the story of the Good Samaritan which in essence teaches us that anytime we come across anyone who we might help – that person is our neighbor.  Jesus, of course, did not live in a day where anyone had a say in choosing their political leaders, so he never talked about voting, but I’m pretty sure that if Jesus walked among us today, in the midst of an election campaign, he’d say, “Just remember – when you mark your ballot – you have the opportunity to help a neighbor (someone you might never meet in the flesh), or else to turn your back on her.”  


The 10 Commandments are not rules for rules sake – God just doesn’t work that way.  The 10 Commandments are principles for building the Kingdom of God – the realm we anticipate every Sunday when we pray, “Thy Kingdom come.”  


So be it, Lord.  Thy Kingdom come.  Remind us that we face choices everyday in bringing that prayer to reality.  Come, Lord Jesus.  And when you do come, may you find us building your realm.  Amen!


The Sacrament of Communion is a symbolic reminder of the Kingdom-building work to which all of s are called.  When we eat of the body of Jesus and drink his blood, we are reminding ourselves and everyone around us that we’ve signed up to be the hands and feet of God in a selfish and Godless world.  When we eat the bread, we enlist in the project of bringing hope to the needy – to the sick and the poor and the persecuted.  When we drink Christ’s blood, we signal to God that we’re ready to minister to all who stand in need of forgiveness and hope.  


My friends, the bread and the cup are powerful symbols of God’s love, but they are also powerful symbols of our partnership in the world-redeeming work of Jesus.  Before we eat and drink, please join me in this prayer of sanctification:  Holiest God of law and grace, we commit ourselves to a full embrace of the mission implied in this ritual.  At that same time as we gratefully accept the fullness of forgiveness and life that the ordinance implies, we also accept the mission that it demands.  By eating and drinking, we identify with Jesus – in a mysterious sense, we become Jesus!  And when we identify with Jesus, we become partners in the work of Jesus – the work of sharing life and hope with all who are persecuted and unwell and treated unjustly and are in need.  Consecrate these elements to us and by them empower us to do the work to which you call us.  All this we pray in Christ’s name, Amen.


My friends, these elements – the ones I have here, and ones you have in your car, or maybe only exist in your mind – are powerful vehicles by which the work of God might be enacted.  They are both gift and mandate.  They are for you and for me, thanks be to God.


So, take the bread and eat it, knowing that by so doing we enlist in the work of Christ.  (eat & pause)


And now, drink the cup, knowing that in so doing we share in Christ’s death, and share in the work of bringing life and freedom to all.  (drink & pause)


Holy God of loving law, we have eaten your son’s body and drunk his blood.  Show us grace and forgiveness.  Grant us hope and life and help us offer exactly the same to those around us who live in need.  The project of loving all is so hard – we can hardly imagine how to do it.  We will be silent for a time and trust in you to begin the work of making us into your servants.  Hear us in this silence:


<silence>


Now hear us as together we pray as Jesus taught, saying, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom and the power and glory forever, Amen!”


A few announcements:


  • Next Sunday’s service will be recorded in advance and immediately posted to our Facebook page.  You’ll still be able to access it on Sunday morning at 9:30 am but understand that it won’t be live.  You may not even notice the difference.  As the Confirmation class knows, there will be no class next Sunday, but class will resume the following week, Sunday, October 18.
  • The Pastoral Search and Profile Committee is at work.  You will receive a questionnaire from them sometime soon.  Please respond promptly, and also keep them in your prayers.
  • Thank you for your ongoing gifts for the support of the church.  Your faithfulness is an encouragement to me and to your congregational leaders.  Be sure that God notices your giving and smiles.  God bless you.


Our closing hymn is a triumphal exclamation of the paradoxical power of Christ’s cross.  The hymn reminds us to hold the cross – the symbol of loss, death and powerlessness – high, because in so doing the whole world may be saved.


Lift High the Cross – 287 – verses 1 & 4 (with the refrain a total of 3 times)


Hear these words of benediction:  God of loving commandment – you have directed us how to live because you love us.  Give us the grace to embrace your love and to share it with the whole world.  Make us people of the table and the cross – people of the power of weakness.  In this paradox we will serve the world in the name of Jesus, Amen and Amen!


God Be With You – Becky


Postlude – Becky


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