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In the Beginning

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On this first Sunday of a new year, in the beginning of 2016, we have a chance to think about where we are in the much bigger story, about who we are as a community of followers of Jesus …and who we hope to be. 

Today’s texts: Jeremiah 31:7-14 and John 1: 1-18

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

In the beginning.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…

In the beginning was the Word…

In the beginning, we were born with the spark of life and the image of God infused into our beings.

In the beginning, 64 Swiss immigrants and descendants of Swiss immigrants assembled on June 10, 1917, in the local gathering place for Civil War veterans and voted to form a new congregation in Madison called “Memorial Reformed Church.” And there was the spark of life and the image of God reflected in their work.

In the beginning of a new year, we marked the moment with hope, with resolutions, perhaps with friends or family, perhaps with food and drink, perhaps amazed by a parade or cheering on a football team. Or perhaps by sitting quietly, listening to the words in a movie, reading the words in a book.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

In the beginning.

Beginning wordThe words on the screen come from Marilyn McEntyre, a
writer and professor of medical humanities in the University of
California system.

Her biography says she “cares about connecting spirituality, politics, food, healthcare, care for the earth and its creatures, care for language and public discourse, and finding new ways to live together on a planet that needs healing.”

Listen to her words from her book What’s in a Phrase: Pausing Where Scripture Gives you Pause: “ ‘ In the beginning’ allows us a moment to step outside time and revel in a cosmic awe that brings with it the comfort that we are not stuck in the morass of human history, but belong to a much bigger story.”

On this first Sunday of a new year, in the beginning of 2016, we have a chance to think about where we are in the much bigger story, about who we are as a community of followers of Jesus …and who we hope to be. We tell our story in words. We look to Jesus as the Word of God and then we try to let his words shape our lives.

You know that little prayer I usually use to start my reflections – May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, who sent your Word to live among us. Amen.

It’s really a mash up of two separate phrases from scripture. The first part comes from a Psalm – Psalm 19, which ends with these words – “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” I shifted that to the plural – “the meditations of all our hearts.” Then I substituted the imagery from the beginning of the Gospel of John – “the Word became flesh and made his home among us.”

I think that has a lot to do with who we are as a community of followers of Jesus. We are committed to the meditations of our hearts – to puzzling over the message of Jesus, the way he reveals the essence of God to us by the words he spoke and the life he lived.

And I think that helps us shape who we will be as we enter into a new year.

This community will celebrate its 99th birthday this year. As the year goes on, we will begin exploring ways to mark our centennial in 2017. (Here’s a link to our history.)

But its worth keeping in mind that even though Memorial did not formally come into existence until that June day in 1917, the community began to gather in November of 1916 when the pastor of Swiss Reformed Church in New Glarus began leading weekly worship services at that Civil War hall in downtown Madison.

We are 100 years out from when the organizing of this congregation began. We have been through many changes in the last century – five different buildings at four locations, 10 different pastors, generations of families.

We have defined ourselves as a congregation that looks out to the needs of the world and that looks after one another among those who gather here.

We have defined ourselves by our generosity and by our hospitality.

We have celebrated the value of music and visual arts and have delighted in our children.

We have engaged hard issues in the public arena and managed to respect the differences among us.

That’s a legacy that I think reflects the Word of God living among us. And that’s the legacy we can build on going into the coming year. More on that in a moment.

I’m going to change the order of things just a bit here from how we usually do things. I’d like to invite you know to sing the hymn we would normally do at the end of the reflection time. While the melody was written within the last half century, the words go back to the 200s, making this one of the oldest Christian hymns we have access to.

While this is not exactly an “in the beginning” hymn – it comes 200 years after Jesus – it does connect us to the early days of our tradition.

CyprianThe author, Cyprian of Carthage, was an early Christian writer from North Africa. He became a Christian at about age 35 after a distinguished career as a lawyer, orator and teacher – and, by his account, “a dissipated youth.”

After his baptism, he gave away a portion of his wealth to the poor of Carthage. He was ordained to various ministerial positions and within a few years of his baptism, was elected bishop of Carthage, largely because of his commitment to caring for the poor. (Yes, the people elected bishops in those days.)

So would you join with me in singing this ancient hymn, #163, “Many Are the Lightbeams” as we think about how we are held together by God’s word living among us.

So how might we live out God’s word in 2016?

We might start by paying attention to two words – love and fear.

Fear is nothing new in our world. There was a reason throughout the scriptures that God’s messengers and Jesus himself repeatedly said to people, “Be not afraid.” Easy for them to say. Harder for us to live by.

Yet when we let fear rule our lives, all sorts of bad things happen.
We wall ourselves off from our fellow human beings.
We create scapegoats and set out to punish them.
We close our hearts and our minds to people who seem different from us.
We seek safety in isolation and in firepower.

So much of the political rhetoric around us is anchored in fear.
Sometimes it is economic fear – they want to take away your Social Security, they want to raise your taxes.
Sometimes it is fear of enemies – the reality of terrorists wreaking havoc in our world.
Sometimes it is fear of groups of people – immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans, police, journalists.

That rhetoric is going to intensify in the months ahead.

Jesus is calling us to a different kind of response.

“Be not afraid” is a good starting point, but we can’t overlook the reality of fear.

We have a sign on our front door – “Love drives out fear – no guns here.” That comes from the first letter of John in the New Testament.

Hear these words: “God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them…There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment…We love because God first loved us.”

Love Over FearThere’s a phrase derived from that passage which a number of church groups are using as the year begins to create a way to respond to the fear that engenders hatred. It’s “Love Over Fear.”

This does not deny the reality of fear in our lives. Whether it’s a terrorist attack in Paris or in San Bernardino, whether it’s a violent person within our households or shots fired in a shopping mall, whether it’s a rapidly changing climate or toxins in our food chain, there are legitimate things that cause us fear.

Fear is a natural reaction, a protective stance. What Jesus calls us to is overcoming fear with love, not letting ourselves be paralyzed or embittered by our fears, but letting love give us both courage to act and compassion for others in the midst of hard times.

Our challenge at Memorial in 2016, I would submit, is to continue looking at ways we can let embrace love over fear.

We have done that in many ways in the past. We have stood with Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem and we have tried to build bridges with the Jewish and Muslim communities here.

We have been attentive to the racial disparities and even the racial hatred in our community and our nation and tried to find new and creative ways to close both the institutional and personal gaps that exist.

We have embraced gay and lesbian couples and transgendered teens and adults in ways that stand against the isolation that so often has marked their lives, particularly in religious communities.

We have made caring for prisoners – when behind bars or returning to the community – yet another place where we put love over fear.

In the first scripture reading today, we heard from the Jewish prophet Jeremiah. One scripture scholar described his writings as “a survival guide for a suffering people.” And the section we heard today soars with words of hope, even in the midst of hardship.

Suffering, hardship, are nothing new. Jeremiah reminds the people of his time and of our time that we are not alone in this world.

The Jewish people are in exile and through the mouth of Jeremiah, God tells them:

“I’m going to bring them back from the north; I will gather them from the ends of the earth. Among them will be the blind and the disabled, expectant mothers and those in labor; a great throng will return here. With tears of joy they will come; while they pray, I will bring them back.”

There’s an assurance of God’s love in those words.

And there is a sense of blessedness, of joy:

“Then the young women will dance for joy; the young and old men will join in. I will turn their mourning into laughter and their sadness into joy; I will comfort them.”

Fanny Crosby knew both sadness and joy. Within the first six months of her life, she went blind and her father died. Her mother and grandmother rooted her in the Bible and the church. She began writing poetry and then music, ultimately writing some 8,000 hymns and gospel songs. Not all of them had staying power, but one that surely did is “Blessed Assurance.”

Last week, CBS broadcast the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, an event that celebrates some of the great people in the world of the arts in our country. One of those celebrated this year was actress Cicely Tyson.

She is 92 years old now – almost as old as Memorial. She has a huge list of film and TV and stage credits, many awards. In a Broadway play in 2013 – The Trip to Bountiful – Miss Tyson opened the second act by breaking into song – “Blessed Assurance.” At performance after performance, the audience joined in as she sang.

At the Kennedy Center Honors, singer CeCe Winans with back up from the Cicely Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts and trumpeter Terrence Blanchard, gave this powerful rendition. I’m going to let them take us out of our reflection time as we meditate on the challenges ahead, knowing that as we go, God’s blessed assurance is with us.
Blessed Assurance at the Kennedy Center Honors.