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An Introduction to Bridge of Hope

What would it look like to help one homeless family at a time?

Through Bridge of Hope, University Christian Church is excited to participate in a way to end homelessness, one family at a time. Today, our team of neighbors met with a single mother and her family who is working hard to begin rebuilding her life. These church volunteers will embody Jesus' love, walking alongside, praying for, and supporting this family as any good neighbor might do. We are proud to be a part of this ministry and partner with Bridge of Hope to impact the life of one family in 2019.

Learn more about Bridge of Hope:

 

(posted January 27, 2019)

What shall we bring to praise our God?

Scripture: Isaiah 60:1-6

By Rev. Nathan Hill

I was part of the Boy Scouts when I was younger, and I loved it - not necessarily for all the merit badges and ranks to climb - but for the chance to be outdoors, sleep under the stars, and enjoy God’s creation. During one summer camp, an announcement was made that a volunteer was bringing his telescope out to the big central field that evening. It was a clear night, so we were invited to wander by and take a peak at the glory of the Oklahoma sky.

After dinner, when things had quieted down, a buddy and I wandered by to peek through the lens of a telescope - and for the first time, not just a picture in a science book or a magazine, I saw with my own eyes a glimpse of the planet Saturn, thousands of miles away in space, but brilliant, beautiful, celestial body. It was so cool. Those few minutes left me in awe - aware of how awesome Creation is but also how small we are.

And then, my curiosity getting the best of me, I asked the volunteer, “What does a star look like up close?”

He paused and said, “Well, it looks like a star. Bright light of burning gas. Like the sun, duh.” (And he did show me one - and it was a let down.)

Today, I asked our liturgical arts team to make sure the Christ candle remained out as we draw Christmas to a close and celebrate this Epiphany Sunday, where we journey with the Magi, the three wise men, who followed a bright light, a gleaming star, to lay gifts and worship the child Jesus.

It’s also a New Year for us - a chance to take stock of our lives, assess where we have been, examine the challenges we will face, give thanks for the blessings that flowed for us in the past year, and begin our steps to become who God is calling us to be.

A time to look, maybe through a telescope or maybe with our lives, for that bright shining star in our lives, leading us to the manger and to God’s presence.

Think about all that is changing in our world:

- A new set of leaders on Capitol Hill were sworn in, promising to bring change to our lives and our broken political system.
- Some of us are saying goodbye to old jobs and searching for or beginning a new one.
- Many of us are prepared to leave behind relationships that bore no fruit and look with expectation for friendships that we have yet to imagine.
- Others among our church are walking in grief and hope in this New Year that our tears might slow and the pain dull just a little.
- A few of you are applying for college or programs to help make 2019 a year of transformation and learning and growth.
- And even for our church, in a few weeks, we’ll gather for our planning retreat to pray and dream together on where God is leading us.

And so we have this opportunity on this Epiphany Sunday, in this New Year, to look for that guiding star. Through scripture. Through our praise and worship. Through our prayer. Through our community. Even through a telescope perhaps. To look for God leading us.

When the Magi, sometimes we affectionately call them the Three Wise Men - but we don’t know if they were all men or if there were three or fifty, when they saw the star in the sky, they heralded as a sign of change coming to their world. A King of Jews would be born, and these astrologers set out to find this King and pay him the honor he was due. Now, it was challenging to find Jesus, because Bethlehem was a small remote village. Like, there was nothing there - probably not even a gas station. It wasn’t on any Google maps. (There may have been no room at the inn, because they didn’t have one.)  And through King Herod and his assistants, they discovered all of that for good reason - this child was born into a time of change and danger of his own, threatened by world powers, hidden away in a remote village where it might have been safe.

The Gospel of Matthew says, guided by the scribes, they head to Bethlehem, “And having come into the house and they saw the child with Mary his mother, and having fallen down they worshipped him, and having opened their treasures presented to him gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

Their response to the end of this journey - and the beginning of the journey home - was to worship the King, give him the full glory he deserved, to recognize the light in his presence. These Magi were likely astrologers, which meant they looked to the stars and heavens for signs of what was unfolding on earth, but they didn’t worship the star that brought them to Christ - they worshipped the child, God embodied right there in front of them.

The prophet Isaiah in our scripture challenges us to recognize the light here and now in our lives:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 

This, the prophet seems to suggest, is divine light. A peculiar light. It may not be the light of a bright burning ball of gas hundreds of thousands of miles or more away from us. It may not even be the light of a bright room or a roaring fireplace or a hospital surgery spotlight. Author David Schlafer, suggests that this light might be a little subtle, “like the imperceptible dawning of the morning sun, like the slowly building brightness of a kindled fire.” Maybe the light was more like a pinprick of flame in the night’s sky, beckoning us to gaze up and seek after it.

This light, this glory of God, points to a world that is beyond our dreams, hard sometimes to imagine.

For the prophet Isaiah and the people of Zion, Jerusalem was a city wracked by war, decimated by violence and division, a community of people have been carried off and spread far and wide across the earth. (Most of that remains true to this day.) It is hard to imagine a turn of fortune quite like what the prophet Isaiah is speaking, but his vision should be that unsettling.

Imagine the ruined stones of their beloved city rebuilt, the gates flung wide without fear of neighbor but with welcome to the stranger, the riches and treasures of the world brought to its doorsteps, the mighty rulers of the earth coming to pay tribute. That is a radical plot twist to history at that point for Jewish people, a people who had suffered immeasurable darkness.

Just as radical a plot twist as finding a King in a podunk village called Bethlehem.

Isaiah overflows with this kind of imagery of what is possible through God’s light and God’s glory - not just for people - but for the entire land. For neighbors. For those who have been lost and estranged from their homeland. For those searching for hope. For those who too often have been left on the outside looking in. For those who are grieving. For those who have been victimized. For those who have had to cross war zones and climb walls and seek refuge in pursuit of a new life.

So, as we begin this year, each seeking out God’s light for us, trying to strain our eyes through telescope lens of prayer for what God’s grand imagination might be for our messed up world and broken lives, we are invited to think about what we will bring, just like the Magi, as we stumble along this journey to discover God’s presence all around.

In both passages, in the Gospel of Mathew and in Isaiah, we are invited to think about the gifts we will bring to God as we enter into God’s glory.

Both scriptures speak about gold, frankincense, and myrrh - symbols of wealth and fragrance - gifts fit for a King. Gifts worthy to celebrate. Gifts worthy to lavish upon One who might change our misfortune and bring light to our darkened world.

But what will we bring as we embark on this journey and this new year, looking for God’s glory all around?

What will we bring to praise our God?

What is it of our lives that we can offer God, especially if we do not have a ready supply of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to offer, that might be worthy?

Of course, you will have to answer that yourself, but for me, my hope and my plan is to bring the best of who I am into the work we do here as church - welcoming guests and neighbors and inviting them to know God’s light-giving love, working hard to be the best kind of parent and co-worker and friend I can be to others, recommitting to the work of justice for those in this neighborhood and world can experience God’s light.

I can rededicate my life to the creative work of God in this New Year, to the grand story of the One we call Christ who has touched my life, to the movement of the Spirit who seeks to set the world fully radiant and aglow in the glory of God, so that there are no hungry, no hurting, no refugees, no violence, no war, no injustice, and especially no walls.

What is it that God has already given you, blessed you with, that you might give back in this New Year?

What is your gold, frankincense, and myrhh that you will bring to proclaim the praise of the Lord?

The funny thing that happened back at that Boy Scout camp was that day, I remember deciding I wanted to be an astronomer. I wanted to study the stars and planets and understand outer space. But God had a different journey for me - and led me by a different star to the grander light of the One we call Jesus the Christ, Savior, Lord, Messiah. Maybe God is leading you to discover anew that divine light, shining brightly upon you, in this new year?

Hear the good news - “Arise, shine; for your light has come.” Thanks be to God.

(posted January 11, 2019)

Rethink Christmas: Check Your Vital Signs

Scripture: Luke 21:25-36

Last Wednesday evening, my family and I made a commitment to kick off our Christmas preparation the right way - with joy and good cheer and eggnog and all that stuff.

I hauled the boxes of Christmas ornaments and decorations up from our basement. We put on a Christmas music playlist. We unboxed our tree and got all the extension cords out. We unwrapped fragile Santas and glass angels and precious mementos with care and hung them from our suddenly colorful, festive tree, full of our memories and expectation for a special Christmas season.

And then we turned on those Christmas lights.

And half the lights didn’t turn on. Half the lights had somehow burned out. Our tree looked spectacularly… incomplete, ugly, not quite all there. Half-dead, barely clinging to life. Not the most joyful way to begin the season.

As we begin Advent, getting ready for the coming of Christ, I want to invite us to begin by checking our vital signs.

When we go into the doctor, nurses and doctors take care to check our vital signs. Our temperature. Our pulse. Our respiration rate. Our blood pressure. If the signs are off, it’s bad. It means we are not well - it means we have work to do.

Advent is an invitation to get our lives healthy for the coming of our Lord.

- Are our eyes and ears open, or are we distracted and dulled by the digital glow of our smartphones and social media?
- Are we breathing in God’s goodness or breathing in the toxicity of politics and selfishness?
- Are we cool and calm and expectant or boiling in anger or fear?
- Are we already hanging by a thread, half-lit in the glow of God, heart slowed, running near empty?

Our theme this Advent is Rethink Christmas. The next few weeks are an opportunity for each of us to check our vital signs in the season. This doesn’t mean I am going to ask us to throw out traditions and practices, but instead, look for the ways the pressures of our culture, the mad rush of our expectations, and the brokenness of injustice and wickedness of our world conspire to dim our lights. As we move toward Christmas Eve, you may notice elements of our decorations here in the sanctuary join us in that journey, some of the glitter and glitz moved out of the way until our focus is drawn back to a child in a manger.

In a world where families are still being separated and torn apart, where gun violence snatches away lives, where too many neighbors are given an eviction notice before a Christmas card, God invites us to discover the pulse in our Christmas celebration.

Jesus says to his disciples, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”

Jesus is telling his disciples to look for the vital signs of His coming. Listen for the groaning of Creation. Listen to the rumble of the waves and the cries of the oppressed. Witness the trembling of governments and institutions of power before the coming of a mighty God. Check the fainting hearts of the faithful and wicked.

Advent begins with this apocalyptic message, a word that reminds us that, in the words of CS Lewis from the Chronicles of Narnia, our God “is not safe but very very good.”

Our culture wants a tame Christmas experience - where we drop off a few coins in a metal pail, where we consume ourselves with broken lights on artificial trees, where we obsess over the perfect gift. But Jesus reminds us that the coming of the Messiah is not a tame experience. It is earth shattering - it is life transforming - it is something worth passing out over - and it is good.

Jesus commands his disciples to be ready - like the camp song, “alive, alert, awake, enthusiastic!” To perhaps be less concerned about the beauty of our Christmas tree and whether a few lights aren’t twinkling and more concerned with how our lives are lit for the coming of our Lord.

In fact, Jesus tells his disciples - “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Stand at attention!

Get your heads out of the clouds.

Rise on your tippy toes.

Wave your hands like you don’t care.

Raise your voice to the rafters.

Announce yourself to our Glorious Creator.

The coming of God is only a frightening thing for the wicked and unjust - for the people of God, for suffering families, for the despised - the coming of God is good news. Our closing hymn written by Miriam Winters pens it this way:

“O for a world preparing for
God’s glorious reign of peace,
Where time and tears will be no more,
And all but love will cease.”

When we stand and present ourselves, when we prepare and wait and watch, when we make our lives and our communities ready, we participate in God’s coming reign - and Christmas becomes not just about remembering but looking toward that glorious future when our lives are lit with the glow and glory of our Maker. Advent is a season to renew that dream in us - to rethink the Christmas dream to more than presents and family dinners and snowflakes and cookies - but to align with God’s dream for all of humanity, where no one is dehumanized or discarded or destroyed. Now, that’s a dream that deserves our best vitality as we share it with each other and our neighborhood.

As we rethink Christmas in this spirit, I think about a couple of things we can do in our prep:

1 - Christmas should be fun.

My friend Rev. Paul Tche, our ecumenical officer for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), reminds me that many churches turn Christmas into a guilt trip time. We lay on the guilt - we’re buying too much or doing too much or not giving enough. I’m sometimes guilty of that as your pastor. Even our theme this Advent can make it sound like something is wrong with your way of celebrating the coming of Jesus - but each of us and our families do it differently. That’s okay.

Later in the service, we will hear a special call to action to think about our practices at Christmas-time, our spending, our priorities -

But my friend, Rev. Tche, is right - especially in this moment in history, when there is so much division, when there is such fear, when families are being separated at our border, when refugees are being turned away, when families pick ashes out of their charred homes, when hatred and violence spill into our houses of worship, when the very earth is hurting - maybe the right thing to do is to be together. To love each other. To laugh together. To take care of one another. To have some darn fun.

This season should be about hope, peace, joy, and love - not necessarily another time to remind ourselves of how we fail to measure up to to outside expectations.

Maybe our trees are half-lit because we need some self-care and tenderness.

Maybe our vital signs are low because we need to know we are loved.

Theologian and historian Gary Neal Hansen challenges us especially to utilize that word of Jesus that is translated as “dissipation” in our scripture:

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly… (Verse 34)

Dissipation means wasteful. This season of preparation is not a time to be wasteful - in our finances or our time or our energy and especially in our compassion for ourselves and each other. Imagine focusing more in these days ahead to make sure you and your family are caring for each other. Imagine focusing more time on telling stories that make you laugh and less on that shopping list. Imagine rethinking Christmas in such a way that this season becomes centered in our connectedness to God and to our church family. Let’s be together - and let’s have some fun.

2 - Christmas is about showing up.

In a book called Bishops on the Border, a United Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopal bishop recount their experience serving congregations and neighbors along the Arizona/Mexico border. One tells the story about the word - “Presente!” Every week near the border, a number of people of faith gather along a dusty stretch of road, holding white crosses in a solemn display. Then, the names of those children of God, fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, daughters, and sons, are read aloud - those lives who died of dehydration and sickness and violence on their way through the brutal dessert seeking a new life in the United States. Each time a name is read, a white cross is held up, and the holder cries out, “Presente!”

Just as Jesus calls his disciples to “stand up and raise your heads”, Christmas is about crying out “Presente!” Being present and awake for our suffering neighbors, for our own weary souls, for our groaning earth, for those crushed and ground beneath the weight of injustice, for those who simply need to know that they are loved. Christmas is a season to show up for God and each other.

Tana Liu-Beers, a lawyer who helps Disciples churches and constituents like our own untangle the complicated, often dehumanizing immigration system of our country, writes that watching the signs is often not even about the seismic events that shape us - but the little things:

“I think perhaps I’ve been thinking about evil the wrong way. Children ripped from their parents, rubber bullets, lockdown drills in schools, men in power making sweeping policies based on nationalism and racism—the evil seems huge and intractable. In the face of which, the candle lit at the vigil, the research begun, the step taken at the march, the word written, the hand held, the petition signed feel small and insignificant. But that evil is manifest through small things: the order followed, the trigger pulled, the government lawyer drafting the regulation, the person looking the other way. Which is not to say that the evil we are facing now is not systemic, pervasive, or dangerous, for it is certainly all those things. Yet so is the good. The slivers of beauty, the speaking of truth, the works of resistance are good manifest. They are light in the darkness, huge and inexorable.”

This season of Advent can seem like a small speck of light in our world. Sometimes, our souls and trees seem half-lit, not good enough against the encroaching darkness. But when we shout “presente!”, my light joins with your lights - and this church’s light joins with others faith communities and movements - and suddenly, this shabby old Christmas tree that once seemed drab and half-lit beams with the beauty of what God is capable and already doing through each of us.

May we shine our lights! May we savor each other! May we get ready! May we check our vitals and find the love of God sustaining us! Thanks be to God!

(posted December 4, 2018)

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