What can I say, 2015 was one of those crazy years that often seemed like a sprint that magically turned into a marathon! But it was a great year, and as we come to its end, we see that we are set and ready to go forward as a congregation celebrating our 125 years in San Jose and reestablishing our vital ministry for the next 125 years.
We knew as the year began that it was going to be packed as we were met the very first Sunday, January 4, 2015, by a very cold church; our heaters had gone out in two places in the church, the Sanctuary and Mission Hall! This could have been a bad omen for the year, and in the past some might have seen defeat before we even started, but that was not the case. Instead of defeat, it became a symbol that no matter what was thrown at us, God was going to provide and God did with a heating and air company that was available and would help us to fix our issues for an amount that pushed our resources to their edge but would not break us.
Grounding us in a theme of perseverance and moving forward rather than defeat, we found a new energy in the congregation. Welcoming new members and trying new fun activities. We really had some great successes over the past year. Our wine fundraiser was a great time, raising more money than needed to repair the organ. We had an Easter service that had larger numbers than in years, and we welcomed more new members this year than we have in the previous years. We saw the start of a new youth ministry and a growing Sunday School program. And, we launched our new Wednesday Revive service and have been able to keep a small but devoted group coming.
We also saw blessings in some of our difficult decisions. But this is what comes when your Session is really working to discern what God is calling us to do rather than secure what they want for themselves. This led to some really hard decisions about where we place our resources of time and talents. It meant that we had to say good bye to some programs that no longer met the vital needs of this community and begin to restructure our staff and resources. Yet for everything we have ended we have either started something new or been freed to put more energy into the new things we do!
This is going to continue into next year as our Session begins to really vision for the next 25 years using the book “A Field Guide for the Missional Congregation.” If you would like to read along, copies are available on Kindle via the Amazon site or from the office for $12.
This will also be our 125th year as a congregation, and that alone will bring with it much excitement. One group has been working for over a year already on a history, and others will be asked to help with celebrations throughout the year.
As we look to 2016, I am excited. Not only for the things we have begun and the history we will celebrate, but also, and maybe more importantly, all of the new challenges and opportunities God will place before us that we have not even thought of!!! I know that we will see more growth in our congregation and connect with the many blessings this place offers as we celebrate this community that is truly a gift from God.
Now in no way was my family perfect; we were three boys with my oldest brother only 4 ½ years older, but Christmas, as it is for many, was a special time. Until I turned 16 it represented everything good in life. Christmas in our house was special.
We would go to the early service, some time between 5 and 7 depending on the year. We’d come home and change into something comfortable. Mother would make what she called Russian Tea for us and something a little harder for the adults. We would eat appetizers and other finger foods and settle around the tree and open our presents. Being the youngest, and with too much energy to sit still, I got to be the one to hand out the presents. This was what I liked the best, sometimes even more than getting my own! Then we would go to bed, and mother would stay up and wrap the “Santa Gifts” while watching the Pope. BTW we always knew about that.
Though I found out much later that the tradition of opening on Christmas Eve is typical of central European families, my mother always said, Santa gifts aside (which were nothing more than candy and very small toys anyway), that we did the gifts on Christmas Eve so that Christmas Day was not about what we want, rather, it was about what we have. For me this meant often meant sitting with my mother curled up next to my grandmother talking for most of the day. And I always thought that is what she meant. Like many children I did not listen to the whole truth she gave, because the Christmas of my 16th year, which I wrote about that last week, taught me that the greatest gift we had was that God Loved us more than we could ever imagine, even more than my grandma, which seems almost impossible to me!
The truth about Christmas is that it is a made-up holiday. It is not something that was important to the early church and when you dissect it, the holiday really is nothing more than a series of pagan rituals interspersed with biblical text. I don’t say this to knock Christmas, rather to lift up Christmas for what it is, a time for us to celebrate that which God has given to you.
Thus, all the traditions your family might have, all the moments of that day lead up to the time when you remember what it is all about, celebrating the life we have because God did not and will not abandon us. He sent His Son once to give us Hope, and He will send His Son again to bring salvation.
So whatever traditions you may follow this year, whatever stories you might talk about, know that all of it points to the very special truth that God Loves you more than you will ever know, so much that he made the ultimate sacrifice for you.
The virtue that we explore on the fourth week of advent is Love. Probably the most direct and powerful statement on Love in the Bible comes to us in John 3:16: “For God so loved the World that he gave us his only begotten Son.” Like so many things that are biblical there are many deeper meanings to this act of Love which give us a clue into the deeper reality of the Love that God has for this world.
But to understand this love we have to start with my favorite question, why? Why would God send his son? Why when He has given every chance for His people to show their faith, God still stays with us and does not move on to some other planet or just abandon us as a lost cause? The clue can be seen in John 3, and the key is the verse I quoted above and that is Love.
The simple way to think of it is a comparison to a parent and a child. Having done enough family counseling over the years I have dealt with many families who were struggling with the reality that the parents did not really like their kids, yet it pained them because of their deep love for them. In most cases the dislike was temporary, having to do with choices or misunderstandings, but the root of what carried them through is that they never lost the passion and love they had for their children.
I think this is part of why much of the Bible is dedicated to telling a story about God not giving up, not abandoning His people. He does this because of the passionate Love that he has for us. But we are left with the question of whether or not we accept it. This can be the most painful part. I have seen what happens when love is rejected, it is a pain that goes deeper than anything physical.
Now many people might say that God does not feel or have human emotions. To that I call bunk! The Bible tells us that God is deeply emotional, you just need to read Genesis again and you won’t be able to miss the emotional and passionate nature of God. The problem is there are times we do not believe it or even fully understand it, but Love can be painful and scary, yet when it is pure you know it and that pure Love can be transformative.
It is hard for me to come to the fourth week of Advent and not think about when I was 16. That was the year I had my last two major operations on my esophagus to correct the dysfunctioning sphincter muscle (Achalasia) and now wildly deformed esophagus. I know I have told many parts of this story before, but in short the first operation was to remove the muscle and replace part of my esophagus with a piece of my small intestine and the second was to correct the complications that arose from a tiny hole that caused a world of problems. As you would think, it was one of those pivotal moments in my life. It was a time where I found faith, learned about grace, and began to understand pure love.
There was a real chance for a couple days that I could die, especially while they were trying to figure out what was going wrong. For the first time I recognized real fear in my parents and I saw that their fear went deeper than anything I had ever experienced and I knew they would do anything humanly possible to get me through the ordeal. I also understood that their pain was far worse than mine!
Now it is not to say that my parents love was always perfect, but I cannot help but think that is similar to the way God loves us. The answer to all of those why’s is that God loves us so much that he would do anything and everything to make sure that we experience all that life offers and know that even at the end, God loves us so much he will welcome us home.
This week we light the third candle of Advent. There are many traditions surrounding the order of the Advent candles. The two most common are hope, peace, joy, and love or hope, love, joy, and peace. We are using the latter, for the reasons I wrote about last week in the pastor letter, that each week builds upon the next. The tradition of the Advent and the Advent candles is one of the latter traditions to be developed.
In the West Advent starts to be observed in the latter 6th century as a shorter less strict version of Lent. This is important because, just as each week of Advent has a meaning, it used to be practiced that each week of Lent also had a defined meaning.
Halfway through Lent, the fourth Sunday to be exact, there was a respite from the strict fasting of the season called Laetare or “mothering” Sunday where pink vestments were worn. On Laetare Sunday the pope would pass out flowers and encourage people to celebrate the promise of the resurrection. The pink color represented this respite from the violet of Lent as a toned down color.
As you may have guessed, this is where the pink candle comes from. As they condensed the seven weeks of lent to the four of advent the middle week becomes Gaudete Sunday, which has a parallel meaning. Gaudete comes from the first word of the Latin introit, which translates as “Rejoice.”
Contrary to what many people assume, the pink candle does not represent love; rather, it represents joy, and the pink color of the candle represents this respite from Advent to open up a true celebration of the joy which is found in the coming Christ.
The scripture that we have for this week is one that I call an “ordered life” reading. Like Micah 6:8, it gives us a direction of how we are to live out our lives as Christians. It starts as the Latin Introit did, “Rejoice always,” and goes on to say that we are called to perpetually live an ordered life of joy, prayer, acceptance, and exploration.
It is an interesting passage because it does not give a Pollyannaish, “life is all perfect” view of Christianity; rather, it says that we should rejoice, in everything good and bad. Moreover, it implies that there will be times of learning and struggles, but when we do give ourselves over to the Joy in Christ, we can begin to understand peace, which just happens to be the theme next week.
I think it is fitting that in the first service we will celebrate Joy as we have the kids perform their Christmas pageant. I know that they will be giving a joyful presentation of the Christmas story. And through their gifts and presence we might connect to a joy and maybe have a respite from the crazy season to experience the Joy that comes from accepting the gift of Christ.
As we learned last week, our Advent is a time when we try to be focused on the fact that what is of this world is incomplete and merely a glimpse of the glory that is with God. As we think of hope, we know that the hope we have is one that is far more than anything we could hope for in this world. The interesting thing with hopes is that within our society hopes are always ethereal. While they may become reality, we pretty much accept them as a “best case scenario” sort of a thing. While they are a desire, they are not necessarily something that people would die for in this world. This week we explore something millions and millions of people have died for, PEACE.
Unfortunately, this peace is laden with problems. As a Political Science professor once said “peace is in the eye of the winner”, a variation of “history is written by the winner.” His point was obvious, that in our world peace is often seen by the people in power. What is peaceful for me is not necessarily peaceful for someone else.
It reminds me of where I grew up. In the suburbs with my look, dress, and education I lived in Peace. I did not have to worry about harassment, beyond the normal teenage stuff; even at that I knew I was safe. But I had a friend. As an African-American, he was always frustrated with police following him when he drove constantly and being suspected of shoplifting when we went to the mall. Not the same peace!
I remember when we had an open forum with a police officer at school and he asked why this was ok, the police officer said “well, we want everyone to feel safe, and it is true that people of color cause more problems, if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.” At the time I did not understand why he got up and left the classroom. I do now! What the police officer was talking about was not peace; it was societal comfort.
It is always important to make that distinction, but it also creates a confusion. If what I think is peace is not, what is peace anyway? And is peace as God promises even possible? Both great questions, but hard to answer.
First, we need to listen hard to the cries for peace. This is where I like to talk about discernment and invoking the “Rule of Paul.” The Rule of Paul is the lesson he teaches about how to recognize if someone is lifting up the church or taking advantage of it. If they are taking advantage of it they promise you comfort and things that are quite selfish in nature. If they are to be accepted and followed they are putting God first. If they are not, then you know what they really seek is power. Unfortunately, that is all too common in this world, we see it with superpowers fighting over territory, but we also see it at home with profiteering.
The reality of peace is that most calls for peace are not really calls for peace, they are calls for comfort. But when you think of it, that comfort is often done on the backs of the powerless or outcast. This is true in the United States as much as anywhere else. All we need to do is look at the prison and school systems. Those with access can live a fairly peaceful life; yes, they may find difficulties here and there, but they don’t have to live in constant fear. But those who do not have access, whether that be economic, cultural, ethnic, or sexuality, are often taken advantage of or have a difficult time overcoming their situation and are never able to find even a glimpse of peace.
It is important here to recognize that what we think of as peace is not the peace that God promises us. The Peace that God promises us is a peace where power, financial gain, class, or any division don’t really matter: it is a complete peace that lets us recognize equality and justice where all have equal access, and power is as unimportant as the most trivial thing.
So we lift up peace this week knowing that the peace we seek is a peace beyond this place or even our comprehension but is a Peace that is complete and just and more than we will ever know until Christ comes in his final Glory.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen