“Here Am I!”

1 Samuel 3:1-20, January 17th, 2021

Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard


“Hear now these ancient words from the Old Testament, the book of Samuel, chapter three, verses one thru twenty.”

1 Samuel 3:1-20

1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli.  The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.  2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.  4 Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!”  5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”  But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.”  So he went and lay down.  6 The Lord called again, “Samuel!”  Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”  But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”  7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.  8 The Lord called Samuel again, a third time.  And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”  Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.  9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”  So Samuel went and lay down in his place.  10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!”  And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 

11 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.  12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.  13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.  14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”  15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord.  Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.  16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.”  He said, “Here I am.”  17 Eli said, “What was it that he told you?  Do not hide it from me.  May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.”  18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.  Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

19 As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.  20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

“Having listen to this writing about God’s invitation to Samuel, let us consider what and how is God calling out to us.”

“Here Am I!”

Most recently, I was ‘called’ by this church, the Riviera United Church of Christ, to be the Pastor, Teacher and Spiritual leader of this faith community.  I know, my journey here began back in November of 2013, and then a ‘formal’ ‘call’ was voted on in March of 2015.  Five, six and even seven years is a very, very short time in the realm of God’s kingdom.  Nonetheless, I was ‘called’ by this community.  My ‘call’ from God to begin the process for my training and my subsequent entry into Ordained Christian ministry… began back in the year 1990.  I, like Samuel, checked with those around me as I tested the authenticity of that which I consider my ‘call’ into formal ministry.  Somewhat like the search committee, which was appointed by the Church Council, they too, worked hard to authenticate who was to be formally called.  It took approximately nine months to make a formal decision.  I was one of several other candidates they considered.  Yes, I know exactly how Samuel felt.  If this be God who is calling out to me to serve, then I needed, I wanted to be sure about it!  So, also did the committee and this congregation.  As did the previous churches I have been ‘called’ to serve.  It is considered a trusted and sacred process.  This gets us up to verse ten of our reading.

At first, I cringed when I realized what the next ten verses conveyed.  Did I really want to discuss with you what God said to Samuel?  Not really.  You see, all pastors, all clergy are only human and thus subject to the failings of humankind.  The writing today is clear, God was calling Samuel to replace his mentor, his teacher Eli.  Seems God was displeased with how old Eli was handling things as his ability to do the ministry, the work which God had initially called old ‘Eli’ to do, was falling short!  This is not the kind of message a ‘trainee’ wants to carry to their mentor.  Yet, even old Eli knew that he would need to hear what it was which God had conveyed to the young prophet to be, Samuel.  I am now seventy-three and yes, many of you have joked that I am still young.  Thank you for that.  But the truth for us all is that none of us are getting any younger.  Yet, I do plan to preach just as-long-as God gives me the tools to do so; no more, nor less.

With all this in mind, we all know ‘not all’ will be called to be church leaders, or pastors, and truth be told, most folks have no desire to stand up here and do what I do, or for that matter what church leaders do.  If I am wrong about you, contact me so we can get you to fill in for me while I take that six weeks of vacation you promised me last year, which I shall take this year; two Sunday’s off a year is just not enough!  There are at least two within our community who are actively trying to follow their ‘calling’ by God to serve, at some compacity in formal ministry.  That leaves everyone else.  Surely, you are saying, this ‘call’ passage is not for you!  Perhaps not ordained ministry or even an occasional sermon.  (Which, by the way, I believe everyone here has at least one sermon that is worthy of a Sunday morning.)  However, this passage is for everyone who is hearing my voice this morning and all who are not hearing me; but are hearing the voice of God call out to them!    

One theologian has written down your question about all this for you.  Beth Tanner asks what you are most surely asking also.  “What does it mean to be called by God?”  This is a question I surely have asked, of myself, and from every Pastor and ‘want to be pastor’ I have had the opportunity to have a real conversation with!  It is a question I believe a great many of you, who now serve within this community of faith, have asked yourself also.  The second question everyone in service to God, at any capacity, asks: “How long do you want me to do this?”  Many of you, like me, have been serving the universal church of Jesus Christ, for a really, long time!  I know, seems strange I would bring this up in a conversation about being ‘called’ into ministry.  Yet, it is a fair question, and we all want to know the answer when we are asked to serve on a committee or ‘volunteer’ to do a particular task or duty which needs to be done.  So, what is the answer?

Let me take you back to a conference workshop I went to many years ago.  I believe I was pastoring a church in Middletown, New York when I

attended this ‘particular’ workshop.  The topic was exactly this: “when do I know it is time to make a change, go to another church, or just resign and do something different?”  The conference I was attending had several workshops which I attended, this one stands out!  I believe the room was filled with pastors and a Pastor was leading the discussion.  He asked the question which thereby allowed us to get all our misunderstandings about ‘called’ ministry out of the way.  One pastor said they should leave if things are going poorly, meaning the finances were shacky or difficult.  Another said to leave when everything was going great!  One pastor said they would leave if someone offered more money to work somewhere else.  Others said similar non-consequential reasons to stay in a position within the church they were serving or not.  Our workshop leader than asked a simple question: ‘what were you ‘called’ to do?  And do you still believe that “God’ called you to do so?  The room went silent, as we all realized we had stepped into the trap which our words had sprung. 

The leader of the workshop said it out loud: “When we are called by a committee or called by God to do a certain thing, a particular ministry, we are called to do so as long as we are able to do the ministry to which we are called!  But, if we can no longer do the ministry to which we were called, it is time to resign or leave that position.”  Let us be reminded that we are all ‘called’ into the ministry of ‘serving the Church’ which was initiated through the life, the examples, and teachings of Jesus.  Likewise, we need to step down or step-aside when the ‘flame’ of our ‘calling’ has gone dim.

When a Pastor can not get into the spirit of the ministry, the work which they were called to do, then a vacation, a sabbatical or possibly retirement from that position is in order.  The same goes for all of us who serve a church or a volunteer position or a staff position with the church.  It is time for a change when one feels, he or she can no longer do the work!  All of us who serve for long periods of time know what it feels like when the time of decision comes.  It is hard!  Surely, it was hard for Eli when he heard that which Samuel told him the voice of God had said to him.  Yet, Eli surely knew that his time had come.  If he did not, then we would have heard a lot more from him in our scripture lesson. Verses two and three of our reading tell us that Eli was getting old and tired, yet he was still involved in the ministry.  However, it is suggested he was growing away from the voice of God.  Does having a hard day constitute the end of our service? For that day perhaps, but if we can rejuvenate our spirits and get back to it, then no, it is not necessarily time to move on. 

Daniel B. Clendenin asks us a rhetorical question: “When or perhaps we could ask, why have you ever felt the silence of God?”  I think many of us can search our journey’s and pick out times when we feel that the voice of God was silent to us.  Answering the when is relatively easy.  Many have shared a time when it felt like God had gone silent, in that if felt that God had surely deserted them or those they love.  Even myself, when alone with God I have asked why, why, or why did this have to happen?  I got no answer, not in the context of that moment for sure.  Have you found yourself asking God what to do in a situation and you did not feel like you received an answer?  The second question is harder, determining the why of it.  Sometimes we may come to realize other factors which may have contributed to the silence.   And many times, we do not.  Frankly, most why questions when it comes to theology, or an understanding of why God does this or that, are not easily answered and oftentimes there is no answer, no answer that we are ready to hear.  Old Eli was apparently ready to hear why God was pushing him aside for the younger Samuel.   

Only God knows how many more sermons or prayers I have left to deliver.  Until then, I will probably keep doing what I do.  Yet, I will continue to stop and reflect, listening to new voices, as I seek to do the will of God.  My prayer is that each of us shall acknowledge how and what God has ‘called’ us to be and do.  Also, that we shall recognize when it is time to ‘pass’ the ‘mantle’ the ‘torch’ of ministry to another.  Furthermore, when the time does come, as it always does – we shall let go and let God do the next right thing.  

Amen.

“Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1:4-11, January 10, 2021

Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard


Read Statement of Faith

“Hear now these ancient words of scripture that speak of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist from the gospel of Mark, chapter one, verses four thru eleven.”

Mark 1:4-11

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

“Having listened to this writing regarding the baptism of Jesus, let us consider all that happened that day and its implication for us today.”

“Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Today’s scripture lesson is about the baptism of Jesus as he prepares to begin his ministry.  The entrance of the Holy Spirit into his baptism is the thrust and focus of this passage.  As in the following scriptures, verse twelve specifically, takes us forward into his journey, as we are told: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” /Mark 1:12/ It is in the wilderness where Jesus is prepared for his journey, his ministry amongst we mortals!  Today’s message is about new beginnings, new focus, and new empowerment!  This message speaks directly to each one of us as we seek out a new pathway in the midst the storms of our lives.  As Christians, we follow the tradition that John the Baptist began, yet Jesus has super-charged our tradition of baptism with the introduction of the Spirits presence, the Living Spirit of “The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit” all wrapped up into one God!  Minister’s, Pastor’s, and Priest’s have been using these words while passing on the sacrament of baptism, to infants and adults, in this fashion a long, long time now!  At first it was just confessing adults who were baptized, until the introduction of infant baptism in the Fourth Century expanded that process to everyone within the family, the body of Christ.  The key here is the introduction of the Spirit, first into Jesus’ baptism, now into all who seek to be baptized, or have their children baptized into the living Body of Christ!

The challenge for us this morning and every morning is this: How shall we ‘Receive the Holy Spirit!?’  First, we must note how Jesus humbled himself and allowed John the Baptist to baptize him.  Jesus received the Spirit and allowed the Spirit to dramatically influence who he was, thereby empowering him for the journey ahead.  In the process Jesus set an example for all who wish to follow in his footsteps and become part of his ministry here on Earth.  Jesus took the initiative to go to the river Jordan seeking out John.  We need to also seek out the power of God – each, and every day.  Baptism is a once in a lifetime event, yet the willingness to allow the Spirit of God, to form and shape our lives, must be renewed every day!  So many folks come forward to confess their allegiance to Christ as they process their faith and their relationship with the beloved Son of God.  Yet, the harshness of life wears away at them and they drift away from the true Spirit, the true fellowship with Christ.  You and me, we need to guard against these phenomena, if we are to follow Christ.  We need to be intentional about inviting the Living God, the Spirit of God into our daily lives, no matter the occasion, no matter where we are on life’s journey… God is there ‘if’ we invite the presence of God to be with us.   

Let us be clear here.  John the Baptist, the man Jesus, and all those who gathered at the Jordan River to be cleansed of their sins by the Baptizer, they lived in a difficult time in history.  Their society was subservient to the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire!  They were all there, at the river that day, living into a shared feeling of humility.  They were acknowledging they needed to be, they needed to ask to be cleansed, publicly cleansed, albeit in the wilderness area, where they sought cleansing by God through this process at the river.  There was no reference to the sins of their oppressors.  Rather, they were cleaning up their personal part in this drama which we call our life journeys.   That is a ‘really’ big event in anyone’s life.  

Every day we all run into, or brush shoulders with someone who trespasses or wrongs us in some way, even if it is as simple as cutting in line in front of us.  It truly is a blessed day when no one offends us in any way.  The same is true in reverse.  It is a blessed day indeed if we, if you or me, never cross over someone else’s space and offends them in some way.  Let us pray we never do serious damage to another with a thoughtless word or a hurtful remark.  Notice, I am not mentioning the harsher wrongs that others commit, every day, in hopes that… that it is never us, that we never ever physically harm another.  The key is we work on our side of the street and make sure we keep it clean and healthy.  Yet, most of us make a mistake here and there, and we do need to repair or make an amend, to another before we move on.  The ancient people of Jesus’ time understood this, and thus they were at the river asking the Baptizer to cleanse them.   

Can we say we have no sin?  Can we see the failing of others but not our own?  Are we willing to humble ourselves and admit when we are wrong and then seek to make it right?  If we do so, can we rely on the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of the Living God, to come and alight upon us like a dove?  Can we?  The dove symbolizes how gentle and ‘light’ the touch of God truly is – when we are humble in the Presence of God.  My prayer for each one of us is… that we shall all one day feel the Spirit, opening our minds, to new possibilities, new enlightenment; and that the Spirit will empower our renewable willingness to do the will of God!  Through the Spirit we are brought together.  Debating a solution amongst ourselves is a process, and this is good!  Yet, when the discussion ends… we need to come together; United by our common belief in the ‘Will of God’ through the Spirit of God, in which we come together, in the common thread of the Spirit’s movement amongst us – to move ever forward. 

I am reminded how our moderators, during these past seven plus years as the Pastor of this church, I am reminded how our leaders such as Nancy Cook, Ann Pierce, and Linda Mathews, each embraced a simple tradition of leadership and endeavored to pass it on to the following Church moderators: Ashley Molozaily and Herb Parisi.  It was said to us as a Church Leadership team something like this.  In our Church Council meetings, we voice our opinions on a subject, debate its ups and downs, then, once the debate is over, we vote and decide as to how we might proceed.  Subsequently, once a decision is made, we come together and embrace our decision, each one of us making it our own; and then we move forward embracing our choices as ‘the church leadership team’ which we are called to be.  When the spirit of this tradition, a tradition that is embraced by ‘healthy’ leadership teams throughout the United Church of Christ, when it is held – a spirit of unity is embraced!  This too is steeped in the tradition of baptism!

Baptism is only the beginning!  Yes, it is very important to celebrate a baptism, yet we must accept that this is but the first step of ones growing, and expanding in faith, and relationship with God!  Just as a leadership team is called upon to come together with a common consensus so also are – we!  Baptism is the common denominator for faithful followers of Christ.  Jesus was compelled to go out into the wilderness where he was honed and polished and prepared for his ministry.  In the same manner we each are obliged to move through our infancy as Christians, learning what it means to follow one such as Jesus, the man from Nazareth.  In our adolescence we are taught the rudiments of our faith and the teachings of Jesus, during his three plus years of ministry amongst the people, in and around Jerusalem.  Leadership teams are taught how to work together, when they do not: gridlock, stagnation, and ultimate failure are the ‘gravel’ which teaches them the harsh truths!  No one, no committee or team wants to fail, and the fear of failure is often contradictory to the spirit of faithful elegance to our Baptism!  Sometimes, just like a child needs to ‘fall-down’ and learn how to stand up again, so do we need to learn how to ‘pick ourselves up’ especially when we have fallen-down!

“Now John (John the Baptist) was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” /Mark 1:6/ Can you just imagine me, your pastor, clothed in the “hair of a camel,” a camel’s dried skin wrapped around me held together by a crude leather belt, to hold it on.  Imagine me, your pastor, dressed like that: standing alongside the river Jordan, eating some dried crunchy locust and a handful of wild honey, perhaps with a few bees buzzing around!  I know – I shuttered too, before I began to laugh.  Why was it so important for our writer of Mark’s gospel to give us such a description of John?  I suppose for the same reason that the writers of the gospel of Luke, tried so hard to glorify a scene where the baby Jesus was born, dramatically contrasting the imagery of the Mark account of Jesus’ baptism!  There was a point to be made.  Luke was trying to get us to embrace the majesty, the mystic glory of the birth of Christ; even causing us to glorify being homeless and poor for just a moment!  In sharp contrast our writing in Mark, which has skipped the birth story entirely, sought to break and smash down our imagery of a softer easier way through Christ Jesus!  It is not easy, as adults, to believe we must humble ourselves, admitting our wrongs, before being propelled by the Living Spirit, to do the ‘will of God’!  Before, being given the intuitiveness necessary to be bold enough to be a faith filled people!  Yet, the baptism of Jesus, at the start of his training and preparation for his ministry, needed to do just that!

And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”’

/Mark 1:11 & 12/ The Spirit shall lead us, if we will but humble ourselves and allow the Spirit to be amongst us.

Amen.

“By Another Road!”

Matthew 2:1-12, January 3rd, 2021

Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard


“Hear now these words from the gospel of Matthew, chapter two, verses one thru twelve.”

Matthew 2: 1-12

1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”  7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.  Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

“Having heard the accounting of the Magi as they followed the star to Bethlehem, let us consider its meaning for us.”

“By Another Road”

In life there is always more than one way to get to where you think you need to go.  However, there are frequent roadblocks, obstructions, and risky choices to be made along the way.  One way may be the shortest distance, yet one must evaluate and then choose the ‘right’ pathway to follow.  Sometimes, we get all ‘caught up, in the destination, when truly life is all about the journey!  Take for instance a simple task, a short walk to get to a nearby restaurant of your choosing.  Last month my wife and I got together with our daughters, granddaughter and grandson, and our great granddaughter.  They were staying at a ‘time-sharing’ unit up on Coco Beach.  The four-lane roadway was rather busy, but we decided that we could more easily walk as it was so close, rather than pull out one of the cars.  Eventually, we made it across safely, but we sure did not save any time, as it was indeed treacherous crossing the busy roadway at five thirty in the evening on a Tuesday evening.  After dinning out on the veranda of a nice Italian restaurant we did not have any problem crossing the road as the traffic had slowed down considerably.  The shortest way is not always the fastest nor the safest way to cross a street.

          Choosing the right pathway in life is something we all are challenged to do – quite frequently along our journeys.  Young adults and their parents are often challenged to pick the right schools, especially as the prospect of going to college comes their way.  Does one pick the most prestigious school, or the closest to home?  The student to be and the parents frequently disagree on these choices.  Cost is always a factor, yet there are ways around these obstacles for many.  A student may need to take a few years longer to get their education as they seek employment to ease the financial burden.  All part of the journey.  Choosing a school ought to be the solution to a given challenge or goal.  When we start with this approach the choices take on a different complexion.  College is meant to give the student more ‘tools’ not just a diploma to aid their ability to be successful in their career choices.  A diploma from a top named school does not accomplish the goal for everyone. 

It really is all about the journey.  Picking the right pathway, picking the right road is crucial!  Being taught integrity and common sense, along side some practical skills such as reading and writing at a college level is a good start.  Being taught how to work with others or how to cope with stress and such add a lot to an education.  Just being taught how to get an A on an exam – will not guarantee the student will know how to apply their knowledge to a particular trade or profession.  Some of the most successful men and women in our current society, never finished high school.  Yet, they were able to navigate through their journey’s quite well.  Were they just lucky or did they see clues in the signposts along the way that gave them the ability to navigate the pitfalls so many have fallen into along the way?  Of course, we are not all destined to be the leaders of large corporations or hold positions of power.  There are a huge number of us who serve extremely valuable positions in life… with little recognition or even are acknowledged by others.  A great many of this very large group of folks, they have been more focused on their journeys through life then that ultimate and sometimes unreachable goal.

Our scripture is about some wise men, referred to as kings… magi or simply noble men in many writings.  Neither the gifts they bring, nor their titles are the key or the primary focus within our writing.  Their willingness to set out on their journey is the key here!  Our scripture tells us that they asked while in Jerusalem, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” /Matthew 2:2/ These stargazers did not seek out old King Herod, but word got back to him of their quest.  Herod clearly did not like the idea of a new king being born; he was frightened of what this would mean for himself!  Therefore, when Herod spoke with the wise men from the east, he asked them to come back to him and tell him where the newborn king was.  Yet, in a dream they are warned to go home a different way!  And that is what they did – they went home by another road.

I know we preachers are not to get into political matters from the pulpit, yet it is impossible not to see politics within the scriptures.  A writer named David Keck points this out for us.  “The wise men remind us that stargazing always involves politics.”  Herod’s only interest in the birth of baby Jesus was for his concern about staying in power as the King of the Jews – not some prophesied Messiah that would come to save the people!  Our lives also revolve around power, prestige, and influence, if we allow it to be the center of our lives.  Do these things affect our lives?  Absolutely!  Do we need to allow them to control and direct who we are and what we stand for?  Absolutely not!  Thus, it is so very crucial that we pay attention to which roads we take.  Some lead to heaven and others will take us somewhere else!  The shortest paths, the bright shiny looking ones with all the glitter; ones with the superficial promises; these are seldom the ones, the pathways for those of us who are seeking a life of integrity and righteousness – a journey through life that includes a relationship with the likes of the ‘Holy One’ which the wise men sought to pay homage to!  The question for us to consider is this: are we getting guidance as to how to navigate our journey around the obstacles that shall surely throw us off the pathway of faithfulness to the God, the Holy One to which we pay homage to!?

          The birth of the Christ Child, as written in holy scripture, is a fantastic drama!  What makes it even more than that… is that this drama is driving and has driven the Christian movement to this point in history!  The struggle so many have is that there are numerous roadways with twists and turns that the many branches of Christianity have taken… since the writing of these ancient accounts of Jesus’ birth.  Including this dialogue of the wise men from the East!  Tradition tells us how we are to interpret this event and how we ought to celebrate the majesty of it all!  Many believe that the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas comes from this piece of scripture.  Most scholars however place the ritual of gift giving further back in history.  The wise men gave gifts in homage, in honor of the birth of Jesus; much like our custom for our personal birthdays.  Giving Christmas gifts to one another, in celebration of Jesus’ birth, if done out of love and admiration for another, is a good custom and a good tradition.  Christianity is meant to honor the love of God, a God who loves us so much that the very essence of God would come and live amongst us in the embodiment of the baby Jesus.  Gift giving has helped families pass on the mystical telling of the birth of the baby Jesus, and the coming of the wise men, with their gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh have enhanced this ancient custom.  This is an easy choice to make, as it is within the journey of gift giving, which is so powerful and profound.

Old King Herod is portrayed as the tyrant, the villain in our scripture today.  And as we read further in the scriptures, he is all of that!  Verse sixteen of this verse from the gospel says it plainly.  When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent soldiers to kill all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.  He did this seeking to be sure the baby prophesied to become king –  was killed! /Matthew 2:16/ It is critical that we all see the significance of this passage.  Yes indeed, the birth of Jesus is something to celebrate and honor.  Yet, let us not get lost in the tinsel.  All that glitters is not encased in gold.  Nor can we allow ourselves to become the instruments of another’s demise!  Herod, in his rage as a cruel tyrant and ruler of the people, wished to use these pilgrims, from the East, to hold onto his position of power!  We are called to become wise like they and choose a different road. 

          What road are we to take?  Easy question, but a difficult one to answer.  Simply look to the wide range of answers Christian leaders since the time of Jesus have given.  Wars have been raged over the very answers.  The “Herod (’s of this world) is/are still sending centurions to trample through small towns in the name of the public good.”  Thank you: Nancy Rockwell, for this harsh yet revealing truth.  I too wish to continue stargazing as I look to the stories of the scriptures.  Thankfully, the deeper meaning in our scripture tells us that we can, and we ought to pay homage to the Holy One, the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, just as the wise men did when they found where the baby Jesus was born.  However, we cannot, and we must not, allow the darkness of those who would trample upon the innocent for the sake of their own gain blur our vision!  We must use the very gifts God has given us to be as wise, alert, and careful as the men who traveled through Jerusalem, on their way to see the baby Jesus.  We must pay homage to the signs and listen to the still speaking voices of God, who warns us away from those who would impede our journeys.  Let us be ‘alert’ and ‘listen’ for the Spirit’s guidance as followers in the ‘way’ in the ‘pathway’ of the Prince of Peace!

Amen.

“Pastor’s Letter January 2021”

Happy New Year!  Welcome to the year 2021!  Let us look to this New Year as an opportunity to do new things, thereby expanding our ministry outreach to those around us! 

Let us, together, look to the year ahead with new hope and optimism!  It will not be an easy transition into our future, we know this.  Yet we must look to all we still have and what can still be in our future.  The tragedy of the human loss due to the pandemic and the heartache caused by economic upheaval, has changed our lives and how we gather to worship our God!  The divisiveness within our society has threatened to erode our way of life as a free democracy.  Let us, members, and friends of Riviera United Church of Christ, not allow the turmoil that has besieged us and our neighbors and our works as a community of faith, let us not allow this turmoil to further damage our ministry into the communities we serve.  Let us return to our basic rudiments of faith, turning to our God in prayer seeking direction and new hope for the future.

We turn now to the teaching of Christ and the strength of the Holy Spirit to give us new spirit and new energy to push forward into this New Year!  May God’s grace and mercy be upon us as we seek to be the living body of Christ in the community we serve! 

Yours in Christ,

Pastor Tim Woodard