“ March forward”

Guest Minister -Rev. Caesar J. David, Pastor, Union Park United Methodist Church, Des Moines, Iowa

Video of service

Scripture Lessons:

Psalm 116

I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my supplications. Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live. What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?

I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones. O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the child of your serving girl. You have loosed my bonds. I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!

Matthew 9:35-10:8

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

“ March forward”This passage from Matthew contains the account of Jesus calling and sending out the Twelve Apostles. When we read further in the passage (v. 16ff), Jesus lets them know that it is not an easy task that they have been given. They will have to face persecutions and hardships.
It is like soldiers being sent out to battle. And talking of battles an d soldiers, we have a very beautiful Hymn that you will be singing in this service. It’s called “Onward Christian Soldiers”. It’s a sort of controversial hymn.
The hymn began as no more than a simple processional song, something for children to sing as they crossed the village of Horbury Bridge to the parish church (Yorkshire, England). The author, Sabine Baring-Gould (1834–1924) who was a school master, later became a Pastor, in writing this hymn set the scene for the spiritual conflict between Jesus and the devil. It became controversial because of the perceived militarism in text and music (“St. Gertrude” which is the second tune used in an arrangement by George Sullivan in 1871). Now, we won’t get into the details of the Anglican / Roman Catholic ecclesial understanding of the states of Church – the Church Militant, Church Penitent and Church Triumphant, but let’s just say that history had some chapters like the Crusades, holy wars and other wars and so on. And it wasn’t easy to ignore the nationalistic and militaristic overtones of this Hymn.
It comes as little surprise, then, to learn that “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was initially to be excluded from The United Methodist Hymnal (1989). The decision was picked up by local newspapers and national broadcasters, unleashing a wave of protest from across The United Methodist Church (some eleven thousand pieces of mail were sent to the hymnal committee).
The restoration of the hymn resulted from a course of healthy debate over the use of military imagery, and recognizing its biblical and early Christian origins. People still thought that it may be dangerous in perpetuating the acceptability of religious warfare — metaphorical or otherwise.
Professor of Preaching Emeritus Thomas Long’s 2012 article in The Christian Century, “The absurd in worship,” suggests another meaning to the hymn — not in viewing the church as an entity able to militaristically destroy its enemies, but as one that “makes no advance except that of love, and has no enemy but that which undermines God’s hope for human flourishing.”
Today, if we are to consider ourselves as soldiers – Christian soldiers that are at war, it would not be incorrect, for we are indeed at war. Of what kind? Let’s see. The theme of spiritual warfare is deep in the Bible. Many Christian denominations still speak of “The Church Militant”. The Methodists define it as those “engaged in constant warfare against the world, the flesh and the devil…Ephesians 6 talks about the battle gear! It says ‘put on the whole armor of God’ and it goes on to mention (Ephesians 6:10-20):
 Belt of Truth.  Breastplate of Righteousness.
 Feet fitted with readiness to proclaim the Gospel of Peace.
 Shield of Faith.
 Helmet of Salvation.
 Sword of the Spirit — The Word of God.
Notice who we’re fighting. Eph 6:12 says: For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.Coming back to our text (I want to focus on Matthew 10:8), Jesus sent out his Apostles with very specific instructions:
Mat t 10:8a – Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.
No doubt, Jesus also healed physical ailments and expects those He sends on His behalf to do the same, but there’s a deeper spiritual dimension to this and we need to understand that in the larger, scheme of Jesus’ teaching and ministry about justice, gender-justice, peace, equality, affirmative action, call to faith and service, affirmation of the Reign of God, socio-economic sensitivity and so on – what these might further mean.1. Cure the sick.
One of the main signs of being sick is being weak. And it works both ways: weakness can lead to sickness, and sickness can lead to weakness. In any case, there is a close connection for us to know that the people who are weak are sick or close to being sick. Going beyond the physical affliction and understanding it metaphorically as well, we can see that people can be weakened in the sense of being disempowered and disenfranchised. People can be divested of their power to make choices, weakened to the point of subsistence or even substandard living, or forced by circumstances to not have the strength or opportunity to make changes to lift themselves out of those circumstances.The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a great comfort in seeking to address these struggles. The Good news is that God is interested in our affairs and struggles with us for justice and peace.As people ‘called out’ and ‘sent’ to heal and cure the sick, we need to l ook at how we may bring healing to the lives of the people afflicted in every way, not only physical, but spiritual, social and economic too. Our efforts to do that may take us into the area of charity, social justice, advocacy and focusing on people in the margins of our society. It’s not easy and we may find ourselves indeed contending with the ‘powers and principalities’ of this world.2. Raise the dead
There is the obvious message for people ‘dead’ in sin – so mired in sin that this condition has removed people far from the source of life and light. If we are in that state, we can rejoice in the hope we have in the Gospel message of Jesus Christ that gives life.When we see others in this condition, we need to reflect and shine the light of Christ in a way that they are brought to the saving and life-giving knowledge of the love of our Savior Jesus Christ.We may also be dead in the sense that we don’t feel anything – nothing moves us. We lose our sensitivity, our conscious is dead. If we find people around us in that state, may be, our efforts could be towards building awareness so that we would all be alive and alert to what ails us as a society and what our responsibility should be to contribute to the health of our society and world.
If we have become dispassionate or come across apathy, let’s make efforts to reignite the passion for the kind of life that God meant for us all to have as His created beings. The Good News of Jesus Christ includes abundant life for all.3. Cleanse the lepers
We know that lepers were considered unclean. They had to live on the outskirts of the town. They were not allowed to use the same resources as other people. Today, we may or may not have people around us that are afflicted with the disease of leprosy, but in our social treatment of some people we certainly have ‘social lepers’ – people that we keep far from us. And we’re not talking only about the redlining of neighborhoods. This can perhaps educate us about those that are ostracized, marginalized and relegated to live in shame or fear on the periphery of our mainstream society. Who could these people be? May be those that are of a different orientation, or people with a different skin color, or a certain race / nationality, may be disabled, may be those that hold a different ideology, and so on. When we observe systems and people that discriminate and exclude some people from mainstream activity, we must counter that with actively building up inclusive, democratic and participatory processes towards a more egalitarian society. That will cleanse the leprosy and there won’t be lepers. Can we understand that as as we do a social reading of the Gospel message?4. Cast out demons
A demon-possessed person was a person in the grip of an evil power; he or she was no longer in control of himself/herself and of their actions. The various manifestations of evil can be seen in the diabolical crimes and atrocities we see committed. For example, there are crimes against women and children, violence and injustice that are really demonic and represent forces of evil, death and destruction. When we make efforts to root out these evils, we’re participating in building up the Kingdom of God, because then we’re replacing these dark things with the Reign of God – replacing hatred with love, revenge with tolerance, selfishness with compassion, suspicion with trust, greed with caring and so on. We can bring faith, hope and love to counter the demons of our society.I hope that we are able to see what an important task we have in taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a broken world that really needs it. As we understand our responsibilities as followers of Jesus and as His apostles, we will have a sense of being at war. It indeed is! We have been given authority. We have been equipped. Let’s march in faith. Let’s march in His love and His strength. Onward Christian soldiers!God bless you.

“What Christmas Means to Me”

Isaiah 9:6-7

A child will be born for us. A son will be given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. He will be named: Wonderful Councilor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and peace will have unlimited growth. He will establish David’s throne and kingdom. He will uphold it with justice and righteousness now and forever.

Luke 2:8-20

Shepherds were in the fields near Bethlehem. They were taking turns watching their flock during the night. An angel from the Lord suddenly appeared to them. The glory of the Lord filled the area with light, and they were terrified. The angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid! l have good news for you, a message that will fill everyone with joy. Today your Savior, Christ the Lord, was born in David’s city. This is how you will recognize him:

You will find an infant wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.” Suddenly, a large army of angels appeared with the angel. They were praising God by saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those who have his good will.” The angels left them and went back to heaven. The shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see what the Lord has told us about.” They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph with the baby, who was lying in a manger. When they saw the child, they repeated what they had been told about him. “Everyone who heard the shepherd’s story was amazed. Mary treasured all these things in her heart always thought about them. As the shepherds returned to their flock, they glorified and praised God for everything they had seen and heard. Everything happened the way the angel had told them.”

“What Christmas Means to Me”

Chris-mus and Christ’s-mass are two of my favorite holidays. They weren’t always. I grew up in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, agnostics and atheists. None of which celebrate the Christ’s Mass. The atheists’ and agnostics in the family did at least celebrate Chris-mus.

You know the difference right? For a long time I didn’t know the difference. I didn’t even know that one was a holiday and the other a holy day.

Christ’s Mass celebrates the birth of the Christ child. The promised savior of sinful man. The fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham that, through his decedent, all people will be blessed.

Chris-mus, (notice the way it is pronounced … Chris rather than Christ) on the other hand, is a secular holiday that celebrates gift giving, Santa, flying deer, evergreen trees and colored lights.

My mother, a Jehovah’s Witness, celebrated neither holiday nor did my sister. My brother celebrated Chris-mus and gave gifts and decorated their home. I was nearly the age of his children and occasionally would also receive gifts from him. (actually is was his wife who was in charge of gifts). As I grew older, I also exchanged gifts with my nieces and nephews.

When I had children of my own, we celebrated a hybrid version of the two holiday’s. We decorated and gave gifts but the focus was on the birth of Christ. My kids knew the Santa myth but were never encouraged to believe it.

Now that I have grown into being Santa, my grandchildren and great grandchildren believe in Santa. I enjoy it. Santa is an example of the best of what we are as humans. he is loving, jolly, giving soul who puts everyone else’s happiness above his own and goes out of his way to be a servant to others. And he gets paid in cookies and milk. How great is that?

However, as we’ve all heard, Jesus is the reason for the season. So I’ve made it my mission to put Christ back into my holy day greetings by trying to remember to say Merry Christ’s Mass

Our Hebrew scripture reading from Isaiah delivers the promise that “A child will be born for us.” Did you catch that? For us … a gift … for us. For us … not a random birth … but a birth with a purpose … for us. I had a startling, mind opening thought here. Listen … here it comes … the gift is never more important than the recipient. Right? The new socks that I received are not more important than I am. The piece of jewelry that I gave is not more important than the person to whom I gave it. Do you see it? Do you understand what that means? God valued US more than his son! Or, if you understand the reality of the Trinity … God valued US more than Himself. But don’t take my word for it, hear the words that Jesus himself spoke, “For God so loved the world (us) that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That revelation alone should take us humbly to our knees to praise God for His love of us.

Listen as the promise continues, “A son will be given to us.” Now the promise is restated “to us”. “For us” spoke to the sacrificial nature of God’s gift. “To us” speaks to the direction of this love. This love is to us … not from us … not because of anything that we have done to deserve it … it is just “to us”.

“The weight of the government will rest on his shoulders.” For centuries this was understood by most to mean that the Christ would rule an earthly kingdom. A kingdom such as the people understood but with a benevolent leader who would unite all mankind under his rule. We, from our perspective, have heard Christ’s response when Pilate asked him about his kingdom. Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight to prevent my arrest by Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

No, in his earthly life the only things place on his shoulders were the weight of the cross and the burden of our sins. And yet, just as the prophet said, His kingdom continues to grow, there is no end to it.

I doubt that the shepherds who received the angel’s greeting centuries later were thinking of Isaiah’s words. And yet, they were still waiting and expecting the Christ to come.

I try to inject myself into these scriptures and imagine what it was like to be a shepherd on those dark hills that night. No smog and no light pollution from our modern cities. The sky would have been as black as the inside of a cave. And yet the sky was ablaze with the light of billion upon billion of stars such as few of us have ever seen. Most of the team of shepherds were dozing while a few kept watch, constantly aware that there are predators and other dangers in the dark. They were probably talking about the scores of their favorite sports teams (or whatever men talked about before professional sports and automobiles … I have no idea.) A small fire is crackling nearby. It is not so large as to ruin their night vision but just enough to keep the chill of the night at bay. Fragrant smoke curling upward carrying the scent of olive branches and grapevines toward heaven. And into this peaceful setting, an angel, glowing with unearthly light, suddenly appears and says, “Do not be afraid.” Too late! I would have already wet myself. “Do not be afraid?” You are kidding, right? Then the angel continues, “Boys, I’ve got great new that will have everyone wetting themselves with joy!” Okay, that’s not a direct quote but understand that this news is unlike any other news before or after. No other news in all creation was more important than “Christ has come!”

The shepherds are not commanded to find him but it is assumed that they will so they are given this simple way to recognize this new born Lord of all, “He will be wrapped in strips of cloth and laying in a feeding trough.”

I’m sure that Bethlehem was no where near the 25,000 people that live there today, but it was a city who’s population was swollen because of the people who had come to be registered for the emperors census. How did the shepherds find Him? Well, first of all they were not looking for a baby born in a house. The baby was laying in a manger. Probably the parents were travelers so go look where travelers go … inns. Or more precisely to an inn so full that guests would have to seek shelter in the stable. And with the added assist of some divine guidance, the shepherds find him just as the angels had said.

And what was the 1 scene in that stable that the shepherds found? Well, unlike the romantic paintings, there were no angels hanging about outside or floating above the baby. If you’ve ever been in a barn where animals are kept, you don’t have to imagine too hard and long as to what it smelled like: a mixture of new hay, old wood and animal odors. The animals are awakened by all the activity and probably expecting to be fed. This would have not been unusual for shepherds. But in the middle of all this is Mary, all exhausted from travel and childbirth. She hasn’t had a midwife or family or friends to help her through the delivery or the cleanup. Childbirth is a messy business.

Joseph has done what he could to make his little family comfortable and safe. All the concerns of a new father have just been made real in his life. They are far from home because of the decree of some far off, foreign emperor to find out how many subjects he can tax. The journey to Bethlehem was hard … how hard is the journey home going to be now that there is a baby to be tended? How much income is he loosing because he is away from his place of business?

We tend to overlook the human aspects in this story because of the divine. The glorious news of the Savior’s birth is glorious to us because we don’t have to deal with the day to day realities that Mary and Joseph and yes, the new born Christ child were dealing with. Enter the shepherds, all excited and animated as they tell of the appearance of the angels and the prophesy that was told to them.

Both Mary and Joseph had their moments of divine intervention, but that was months ago. we humans have a problem; even if we have experienced a divine moment, after a while the concerns of our daily life push the divine to the back of our mind. enter the shepherds, all excited, all talking at once, waving their arms with excited gestures, overflowing with the enthusiasm of their own divine intervention. The scriptures do not record how long this party went on before one of the shepherds realize that they have walked off and left their sheep. But it does say that they went away praising God.

And that’s what Christmas means to me.