Monday, April 13, 2020

John 20:1-18 "Brief Easter Reflection in the Midst of COVID"

         Easter sermons are traditionally, what?  A chance for the pastor to gently chastise the folks who only show up in church then and on Christmas Eve?  An opportunity for the pastor to preach a bit longer and show off his or her more abstractly academic theological leanings to a captive audience?
         Not today, folks!  First of all, I have no idea who might have been sitting in these hard wooden pews this morning were it not for COVID 19 forcing us to not only be socially distant from one another but, in compliance with Gov. Mills most recent executive order, to shelter in place.  However, I am not the chastising type of pastor anyway.  
Second, I do not have a captive audience because you can turn off this youtube video whenever you want – and we all know that is a lot more convenient and less guilt-invoking than closing our eyes and possibly falling asleep in church.  However, I don’t intend to preach a longer than usual sermon today anyway:  Brevity above all this morning.
         I simply want to point out two things about the version of the Easter story that you just heard.
         First, in contrast to the other Gospel accounts, Mary Magdalene did not discover the empty tomb at dawn, at sunrise, at that “in between” time of first light.  In John’s account, Mary made her way to the rock tomb in the garden when it was still dark.  There was no warm sun.  There was no sparkling dew on the grass.  There was only night.  There was only darkness.  There was only hopelessness.  There was only despair.  
         And that is an important observation for us today – when our world too is dark, when our lives are like night, when we feel hopelessness begin to close in around us, and despair to envelope us as COVID19 continues to spread, and ventilators and hospital beds become more scarce, and death tolls rise.
         Yet, as Mary discovered, God continues to work in the dark.  In some ways, God does God’s best work in the dark.  God brought the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt in the dark.  God walks with us in the valley of the shadow (or darkness) of death.  And, of course, on today of all days, God orchestrated the resurrection.  God achieved in the dark the essence of a holy dream for the world – where life wins, where hope wins, where love wins.  Remember that in the days to come.
         Second, I think it is so ironic that Jesus tells Mary not to touch him.  It is the original social distancing!  And yet, in the end, touch is not what matters most.  Jesus calls her name: “Mary”.  She recognizes him, and the love between them explodes across all the social distance that separates them.  
         And so for us today, remember that handshakes are friendly, to be sure.  Hugs are nice.  However, saying one another’s name, recognizing each other as individuals with our own unique fears and needs, saying one another’s name using words of love acted upon in new ways will connect and interconnect us until a strong and sacred web is formed.  Remember that too in the days to come.
         And so this year, as we shelter in place and wonder if we are doing all we can to protect ourselves and our families from this virus, maybe our Easter message is simply this: 
First, watch for God in the darkness because Jesus who embodies God’s dream has been set loose in the world and will break through any darkness in which we find ourselves.  The Risen One will light our way, particularly now, particularly this year.  COVID19 will not win because we are not alone.
And second, even though we cannot touch, all is not lost.  We remain connected the world over because we continue – in great high hope - to say each other’s names in the darkness and to act with love.  
         Maybe that is what resurrection really means this particularly crazy Easter morning.  I certainly hope so.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 "Spiritual Affective Disorder: Gleaning"

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
         When I went to Sunday School, the classroom goal for the year was always the same.  It was every Sunday School teacher’s dream to have each child memorize all the books of the Bible.  
Since each year we started at the beginning, most of us over time had a fairly good grasp on the Old Testament books, particularly the ones near the start of the Bible – and a not-so-good grasp on the New Testament, especially anything that came after the Gospels.  And our tenuous grip on the opening New Testament narratives was most likely the result of the rhyme that annually circulated the halls of the church education wing: “Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.  Saddle the horse, and I’ll jump on.”
         However, over time we all knew that Genesis came first with its admittedly hard-to-believe as we grew older but still interesting tales about Eve sprouting from one of Adam’s ribs, Eve with her penchant for ripe red apples and fascinating ability to talk to snakes, about Noah and the animals in the Ark bobbing on the waves for 40 days and 40 nights before ending up perched precariously on the summit of Mt. Ararat, and Abraham nearly sacrificing his son, Isaac, on a makeshift altar in the woods before a ram entangled in the nearby bushes miraculously appeared to save the day.  A Biblical deus ex machina, perfected later by ancient Greek playwrights. 
Then there was the drama of Exodus with the Burning Bush and Moses standing In his bare feet on holy ground, the parting of the Red Sea with the triumphant drowning of all the Egyptians on their chariots along with their horses, and then Moses smashing the stone tablets as he descended from Mt. Sinai when he witnessed in horror the Hebrews dancing sensually, their sweat glistening in the firelight, dancing  around a Golden Calf in the valley below (at least, that is how Cecil B. DiMille portrayed the scene in the movie).  
But after Genesis and Exodus, well, then came the three boring books, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – finally followed by action once again with the story of Joshua besieging the city of Jericho until the walls came a tumblin’ down – and so on and so on.
Leviticus, then, was the first of the three often skipped over dull books. It was the one that encompassed all sorts of laws, most of which make no sense to us today and some that we would not even want to talk about in polite church company, but laws nonetheless that the Hebrew people were to abide by as they settled the Promised Land.  
And so we find in this tedious Book of Leviticus what to do about animal sacrifice, oozing sores, moldy walls, gashed flesh, and any sort of bodily emission you can think of.  There are also instructions about diseases, women’s health, and sexual mores.  
According to this rulebook, trimming one’s beard was prohibited, as were sporting tattoos and wearing clothing made of two kinds of fabric.  Even more difficult to stomach – no pun intended – was that eating shrimp and lobster was outlawed, and, worst of all, no bacon.
And those were the easy laws!  If you were less than holy because of the animals you sacrificed or the tattoo you got when your mother was looking the other way, if you were impure in those instances, you could clean up after yourself, so to speak.   
However, tucked in amongst all of these offbeat and, to us at least, ridiculous regulations governing what we eat and what we wear, are the verses that we read this morning, all of which could be grouped together under the more acceptable umbrella of “neighborliness.”  These are the more difficult laws to abide by.
In these verses, we find laws that echo the Ten Commandments, such as do not steal and do not use God’s name in vain.  And we find the words that Jesus fell back on – either directly or indirectly - time and again in his own preaching:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  
Those laws are the tough ones because they challenge us to live in the likeness of God.  They demand that we live as God dreamt from the beginning that we would live. They call us to be good and holy because God is good and holy.
Old Testament scholar Tyler Mayfield summarizes these Hebrew Bible verses this way:  “Broadly speaking, the regulations provided in Leviticus 19 relate to ethical matters such as the proper treatment of others, how we respect and honor various peoples.”  He goes on to elaborate, “The laws deal with one’s relationship to these diverse groups, cutting across economic, familial, and ability lines…..
The word typically translated as ‘neighbor’ does not carry an explicitly geographic association. It is not necessarily the one whom you live beside or across from or on the same street. It is not necessarily the people on your side of town or even those within your city.”  
Your neighbor, then, is any fellow traveler you encounter – either directly or indirectly – on your way through life.  It is the homeless man with his sign saying that anything would help.  It is the refugee fleeing famine, the immigrant seeking a better life, and the asylum seeker mother and her children leaving terror behind.  It is the one who cannot worship with us and enjoy our fellowship afterwards because we are not suitably handicapped accessible. Those people are all our neighbors.
I find it fascinating that these short sound bite injunctions that punctuate this passage are bookended at the beginning by the demand to “be holy” and at the end by the commandment to “love your neighbor.”  It is as if the author is constructing a bridge between being holy and loving one’s neighbor.  
The author seems to be saying read between the lines - literally.  And when you do, you will discover that there is a linkage between holiness and love of neighbor, a linkage that is expressed and lived out by the verses in between:  Do not deceive.  Do not defraud.  Do not hold back wages.  
Do not discriminate against or make life difficult for the blind, the deaf, the disabled.  Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge.  Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life.  Do not pervert justice.  
Is it any wonder, then, that these verses are part of what is called in Leviticus, the “Holiness Code”?  As Old Testament scholar Cameron Howard notes in her commentary, “In the Holiness Code, holiness extends from the sanctuary (that is, the synagogue or, in our case, the four walls of this church building) ‘to the land and its occupants’…Holiness is a mark of distinction…Achieving holiness requires ethical behavior, not only ritual precision. “
She continues to write, “The practices described in this passage name the kinds of everyday injustices that not only many of us have experienced, but also that many of us have committed. There are perhaps dozens of times every day that we have the opportunity to look out for our neighbor, but we look out only for ourselves: we do not leave some of our income for the poor, we deal in falsehoods to save or make a little more money, we bear grudges against family and friends. These are the actions that should make us blush. Yet we often become so comfortable with our sins that we hardly even notice them.”
She concludes by saying, “Leviticus’ concern with impurity and holiness remains relevant today, even to the twenty-first-century Christian reader. The book brings to each of us the question: what in your life is impeding your encounter with God?”
Or to use the language we have been using throughout this worship series:  What is increasing the likelihood that you will experience Spiritual Affective Disorder, so that you feel like you are living I the winter blahs of semi-darkness?  And what intentional spiritual practice might you embrace that will turn the lights on once again in your life?
Of all the ways to be holy as God is holy, to be neighborly as God dreams for us to be, I think the very first one stated is an excellent place for us to begin:
“When you harvest your land, don’t harvest right up to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings from the harvest. Don’t strip your vineyard bare or go back and pick up the fallen grapes. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.
For the farmer - or even backyard gardener - among us, these verses might make perfect sense.  
 Leave the snow peas and the eggplants, the zucchini and summer squash that grow near the perimeters of your vegetable gardens intact and refrain from freezing them for your own use in the coming winter.  Do not pick up the drops from your apple tree in the autumn and make applesauce for yourself.  
Why? Because, in Leviticus, the purpose of leaving produce in the field was to give poor people an opportunity to gather food for themselves and their families. For us, that might mean planting a row or two to give to the Food Pantry – or canning some applesauce to give away as well.
However, for those of us who are not farmers – or even summer gardeners - how might this idea of gleaning, that is, of gathering food for those who need it out of the abundance that we live with every day, be applicable to our own lives?  What if we began by embracing the blessing of our abundance and recognizing the excess we have?  What if we were to intentionally, as the adage goes, “live simply such that others may simply live”?  
What might that look like?  For Sharon Beckwith, the founder of Daisy’s Children who will be speaking to us at the end of our worship, it meant starting a non-profit to feed hungry children in Honduras.  For you, it might be a much smaller task.  
As worship consultant Marcia McFee suggested, “What awareness can we bring to the food we buy, cook, and throw away as part of our spiritual mandate to care for the human family? (Could it be) cooking more than enough and sharing with someone who needs it, buying extra at the grocery store to donate to the food bank, or getting involved in a gleaning network's efforts?”
         Therein lies is my final challenge to you this week as we wrap up our worship series on Spiritual Affective Disorder.  Do something around the excess of food in your life.  Practice  some 21st century “but I do not have a garden and besides it is winter anyway” opportunity for gleaning.  Again - what might that look like?  Perhaps it would be something as simple as cooking extra to share with someone who might need a little help – financially or emotionally. 
Take those chocolate chips left over from baking Christmas cookies and put together a batch for a friend. Bake a casserole with those extra noodles and cans of tuna in your cupboard for a neighbor who is having a hard time.  Buy an extra jar of spaghetti sauce, and a box of pasta, and a couple of extra cans of soup and fruit and vegetables, and leave them on the Missions table in the Vestry to donate to our Food Pantry.  
Take a collection box that will be available after worship and support Daisy’s Children – our Lenten mission project – and by doing so help food insecure children be fed.  
Doing those things is being neighborly as Jesus challenges us to be.  Doing those things is being holy as these verses in the Book of Leviticus call us to be.  After all, as Presbyterian pastor Diane Christopher reminds us, the question is this:  “What does holiness look like?  It is loving God, but it is also loving our neighbor. Being holy is about how we treat other people. That is what Leviticus 19 is all about. It is about living together in a community.”

Psalm 119:1-8 "Spiritual Affective Disorder: Movement"

         Our Bible is full of references to movement – from walking to running to even dancing.  When the newly freed Hebrew slaves safely crossed the Red Sea, leaving the Egyptians who pursued them drowning in the waves, Miriam, a prophetess as well as Aaron’s sister, took to the heights above the shoreline with a bunch of the women following her.  There she pulled out a tambourine, and they all danced in joyful celebration of their freedom.  
Likewise, a young King David once stripped to his skivvies and danced triumphantly down the main drag in Jerusalem as he brought the Ark of the Covenant home.  He was clearly celebrating though his wife looked on from a nearby second story window, much chagrined and embarrassed by his antics.
         In the letters attributed to the Apostle Paul, the author writes several times about running the good race and going the distance.  And in the Book of Hebrews, the very last book to become part of our Bible, we are encouraged to run with perseverance the race marked out for us,  fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”
         And did you know that the first followers of Jesus did not refer to their newfound lives as being Christian?  Rather, they understood themselves to simply be women and men on the Way, Jesus’ Way, on the path down which they would walk together as a community. 
The Gospels are replete with movement as well.  The Good Samaritan walks on the road to Jericho.  The Prodigal Son walks to the security of his ancestral home.  Jesus and his twelve closest disciples walk from village to village and town to town to heal the sick, raise the dead, and preach the Good News of God.
         And, of course, this excerpt from Psalm 119 that we read this morning begins with the image of walking.  Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!”  Topping out at 176 verses, Psalm 119 is the longest of the 150 psalms included in our Bible.  Perhaps for us, in our fast moving sound bite culture, this extraordinarily long psalm is more bedtime reading than anything else.  However, ancient readers, as Old Testament scholar Joel LeMon explains, “would have found this psalm utterly compelling because it makes bold claims about how to live a happy life and have a healthy heart.”
         Psalm 119 is what scholars dub an acrostic psalm.  It utilizes a style of writing found in a couple of other psalms and in sections of the Old Testament book of Lamentations.  As LeMon goes on to say, “In these poems, each verse typically begins with a successive letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Thus, the first verse would begin with aleph and the second with beth, and so on, until the poet reached the end of the alphabet.  Psalm 119 is a singularly complex alphabetic acrostic in that every line in an entire stanza begins with the same letter. So not just one verse, but eight verses start with the letter aleph -- the next eight with beth, and so on, all the way through the Hebrew alphabet.”
         Psalm 119 then would have been a terrific way to learn both the Hebrew alphabet and the importance of the Law of God, the Torah. Here in this psalm then, becoming educated about the significance of the  Law and all the good that comes from keeping it and mastering the written language by which to study the law were intertwined.  Kind of like catching two birds with one stone.
         As Biblical scholar Jason Byassee noted:  “The psalm is expansive, exhaustive, and exhausting, and it’s making a point. God’s law is delightful. Really.”  It is like a manual for living.  You cannot be happy, the Psalmist seems to say, if you do not consult the manual  - the rules - every now and then.  
         But really!  Rules, rules, rules!  The thought of excessive rule-making is enough to make you cringe.  Whether it be too much environmental regulation or a requirement that our children be vaccinated before they enter public school, laws have the potential to constrain us and curtail our freedom.  And it is true.  Some laws make no sense – and I do not mean that as a politically charged statement about either environmental regulation or Question 1 on the March ballot.
There was once a young girl who watched her mother numerous times prepare a beef roast for Sunday dinner.  Just before putting the roast into the oven, the mother would cut off the end of the roast and set it aside.  
So one day the little girl asked “Why do you cut the end off of the meat?” 
 “Because that’s the recipe,” her mother replied.  “That’s how my mother did it.”  
“OK,” the girl said, “but what does it do?  Why do it?”
Well, come to think of it the mother was not sure, so she called her mother, who likewise had no idea why she had always prepared a beef roast that way.  “That’s how my mother always did it,” she also said.  
How lucky the little group of seekers was, however, to be able to consult yet another generation! They contacted the little girl’s great-grandmother, only to hear her burst out in laughter.  “I always cut the end off a roast beef because the only pan I had for the oven was too small to hold the whole thing!”
         OK – some rules really are completely senseless and arbitrary.  In fact, Reformed pastor Scott Hoezee elaborated in his commentary that ‘Frederick Buechner once noted that in all of life there are two kinds of laws: arbitrary laws like the setting of a Speed Limit or a property owner’s decision to post ‘No Hunting’ signs on his land.  
There may be some rationale behind those kinds of laws but they could also change: a state government could raise or lower the maximum Speed Limit.  The next person who buys a piece of land that had previously been designated ‘No Hunting’ may allow hunting on that land after all now that it belongs to him.
But then there is something like the Law of Gravity.  It’s not arbitrary.  It explains how the world works.  The Law exists to tell us not how some random person or government decided how things could be but rather these laws exist to reflect how things very simply are.  If you don’t like a Speed Limit of 35, you can push it up to 45 and probably get away with it most of the time.  
However, if you decide you don’t like the Law of Gravity and so defy it by stepping into thin air on the edge of a cliff . . .  well, you won’t get away with it.” Two kinds of laws:  And the Law about which the Psalmist writes is the second sort, whether we follow it or not.
         In his commentary, Byassee goes on to say, “There’s nearly nothing about the content of the law at all in this psalm. It goes on and on about how wonderful the law is, but never tells us what the law is. Not once! If this was the only chapter of the bible we had, we couldn’t reconstruct one of the ten commandments from it, let alone scripture’s 603 other commands. The psalm is an attitude adjustment, not a content dump.”  
The Psalm espouses not a complete set of complex and constraining rules, but rather a way of life that will bring one closer to God. Taking a wrong turn is likely to leave us broken.  Listening for God as we walk the path of our spiritual journey will bring us joy.
And yet, it is often so difficult to listen for God in this season of darkness, this season of chill.  Curled up in front of the woodstove with a good book may seem like the perfect antidote.  However, in the long run, doing so is likely to lead to social and spiritual isolation – and Spiritual Affective Disorder.  
As worship consultant Marcia McFee informs us, “Research shows that one of the most effective mood-boosters is moving our bodies. Stretching, walking, and dancing can send feel-good endorphins coursing through us and the change can feel like a light coming on. The Hebrew authors of our scriptures used the metaphor of ‘walking’ in God's ways to help us see the benefits to our spiritual lives of moving toward the goodness of God.”
Certainly for me, when I was doing early morning walks while training for the 10 annual 60 mile Komen breast cancer walks that I have completed, I just felt so much more centered – and frankly alive.  Those walks gave me an opportunity to clear my head.  In fact, I wrote some of my best sermons (in my mind, of course) walking on the road! 
Walking also gave me a chance to slow down and take in the world around me.  I remember walking close to a hidden red wing blackbird nest one morning.  I had no idea I was disturbing anything by my presence until an adult bird was suddenly flapping its wings a foot or two from my face.  The experience was a rather shocking blessing I will never forget!  I recommend a good intentional walk – even in the wintertime – as a spiritual practice to bring one closer to God and to keep the winter blues at bay.
I do not do much running anymore, so I cannot really comment on it as a spiritual practice.  Certainly some people find it exceedingly helpful – especially when they get into the so-called “zone” and feel like they could continue running forever.  I guess it is a wonderfully freeing feeling which, I must admit, I cannot ever remember experiencing.
But dancing!  That is another story!  Joe’s mother loved to dance!  In fact, one of my fondest memories of her was the evening after Thanksgiving a year before she died.  The Irish music was playing loudly, and she was dancing – first by herself, then with a daughter.  
Soon a granddaughter joined her, and finally Joe’s mother beckoned to Tim’s then girlfriend, now wife, (who had never really experienced a Foran Thanksgiving weekend before), invited her to come and dance as well.  It was beautiful to watch!  Multiple generations dancing together!
Joe inherited his mother’s love of dancing.  He frequently dances in the kitchen while preparing dinner – either with me or with one of the dogs.  And if you ever watched the TV show, Grey’s Anatomy, you will know that at the end of a particularly trying or devastating day, a few of the women would gather in their living room with a glass of wine, and they would have a spontaneous dance party – each one of them rocking out to her own rhythm, all of them dancing to chase the blues away.
Dancing can be social or solitary.  Anyone can do it, and it takes no special equipment – not even a pair of walking or running shoes.  You can dance to songs on the radio or to one of your playlists on iTunes.  You can dance to whatever Alexa or Google Home is dishing out.
Our Psalm may be eluding to walking in the way of God in a metaphorical sense.  It may teach us the Hebrew alphabet and about the goodness of God when we keep to the path God sets out for us.  However, walking – or running – or dancing – in a non-metaphorical but rather in a very real physical way – can transport us for a short while away from all that is dragging us down, letting us focus instead on all the blessings that surround us.  
Movement – moving our bodies when sometimes our minds are telling us to stay put, hole up, forget the world around us – can be a deeply invigorating spiritual practice as we seek ways to eliminate Spiritual Affective Disorder from our hearts and minds.
And so this week, as I have throughout this worship series, I offer you a challenge.  Here it is.  It is simple.  It is a one-word challenge:  Move, especially when you do not feel like doing so. 
Go for a run.  Take a walk – with your dog, with yourself, with your spouse, with a friend.  Breathe deeply of the cold winter air.  
Or – walk indoors.  Find a labyrinth.  There are several in the Portland area.  Walk the halls of Windham High School.  It is open several evenings a week for just that purpose. 
And if walking is not your thing, put on some music and dance. It does not matter if you have two left feet and no sense of rhythm.  Dance as if no one is watching you. 
 After all, as an old saying goes: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s learning to dance – and I would add walk or run – learning to simply move with joy in the rain – or the snow – or the darkness of winter – trusting that when you do, the sun will rise again, and the light of God will once more shine in your life.

Micah 6:1-8 "Spiritual Affective Disorder: Kindness"

         Micah is who we commonly refer to as a “minor” Biblical prophet, as opposed to the Big Three, which are Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. He is considered minor only because he was more succinct – and therefore more difficult to find in the Bible on a moment’s notice.  
You see, it took Micah only seven chapters to say what he wanted to say, far less than Isaiah’s 66 chapters, Jeremiah’s 52, and Ezekiel’s 48.  However, as Methodist pastor Philip McLarty wrote, Micah is “anything but minor league when it comes to proclaiming God’s Word. He’s a force to be reckoned with.”
         Micah was a country boy.  Unlike Isaiah the urbanite, Micah lived in a rural village about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem, not far from the modern day Gaza Strip. He was a younger contemporary of other Biblical prophets, namely Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea, which places him historically in the mid-to-early 8th century B.C.E.  He was clearly acquainted with the work of Isaiah as the most memorable of his words that we read this morning are also found in the Book of Isaiah.
 Micah spoke on behalf of the people of his community – the ones with whom he talked about the weather, drank tea with, and saw in the checkout line at the grocery store.  He spoke on behalf of his neighbors who were mostly impoverished farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers.  
Micah championed the cause of those folks - the poor and the powerless – even as he sarcastically condemned the wealthy for systematically exploiting the weak and lambasted the priests and wannabe prophets for being holed up in their temples and shrines solely for the money and status it offered them. 
However, Micah saved his most savage remarks for the hollow and meaningless religious observances he witnessed all around him.  As McLarty wrote, “One commentator remarked, ‘The people were religious, but theirs was an empty ceremonialism.’ Another wrote, ‘Religion had become a matter of form; ceremonial observances were thought to meet all religious requirements. The people believed as long as they performed the external acts of worship they were entitled to the divine favor and protection.’ And yet another adds, ‘The people replaced heartfelt worship with empty ritual, thinking that this is all God demands.’”
 And so Micah in his prophecy sets up a courtroom drama – unleashing Yahweh/God against the perennially disobedient Jewish people.  With no less than the mountains and hills as jurors, God, the prosecuting attorney, lays out his case and brings on the charges.  Remember when…Remember when….I brought you out of slavery in Egypt, I sent you Moses to lead you through the wilderness, I saw that you eventually made it to the promised land. 
“And what did you think I wanted in return?”  God asked sarcastically,  
an armload of offerings topped off with yearling calves? Would I be impressed with thousands of rams, with buckets and barrels of olive oil? Would I be moved if you sacrificed your firstborn child?  Would that cancel your sin?”
And then the defendant – the wayward Chosen People – speaks.  Israel neither admits guilt nor asks for forgiveness. The people only want a way out, a path forward. They just want to know what they need to do to appease God’s anger once again.
“And no,”  Micah concludes, “it won’t be with yearling calves and barrels of olive oil.  That is not what God wants.  That is not what God expects.  That is not what is pleasing to God.  God has different requirements in mind – always did and always will. In the end, God wants your heart.
“God already made it plain how to live, what to do,
    what she is looking for in men and women. 
What does the Lord require of you?
It’s quite simple: To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God”.
         And it is those haunting words of the prophet Micah – to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God – that Jesus channeled in his ministry when he commanded us to love one another.  It is as Presbyterian pastor Gregory Knox Jones noted, “The primary calling of the church is to show the world the change God has made in our own lives by loving one another and by sharing God’s love with those beyond our walls. This love is not simply an emotion, neither is it empty rhetoric to mouth only on Sundays. It is a Christ-like caring in our soul that cannot be contained, but must express itself in concrete actions.” 
It is those haunting words of the prophet Micah – to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God - that we today sing about in church and Bible Camp and on mission trips, that we watch come to life on youtube videos, that we see on colorful banners flapping in the breeze, that we read on bumper stickers.  Nowadays we consolidate the prophet’s words into an easily remembered meme: Random acts of kindness.  
And those random acts are something I believe, if they were to become an intentional spiritual practice, would keep at bay the winter blues, would ward off Spiritual Affective Disorder.  And yet, to love kindness does not always come easily in our society.  Some would say that we are simply too busy.  Or that we have lost the ability to intentionally walk in another’s shoes if only for a few moments.  Or that we fear making ourselves vulnerable to people and forces we cannot control.  
Some would say that we figure it is easier and cleaner and less disruptive if we just keep looking straight ahead of us – or blindly at our feet – and do not allow our peripheral vision to get us entangled – however tangentially - in another person’s life.  It is better to harden our hearts and play it safe than to risk those same hearts being broken open, to see another’s pain as somehow our own.
Charlie could be quite disruptive in Sunday School, and his teachers often did not know what to do with him. When the Christmas pageant drew near, the teachers figured they had better give him a very simple part.  So – Charlie was cast as the innkeeper. All he had to do was wait for the knock on the inn door, open the door, and say, "No room" three times. 
The big evening arrived, and the pageant began.  The two children dressed as Joseph and Mary came to the inn and knocked shyly on the door. "No room," said Charlie on cue. The teachers nodded and smiled.
The couple knocked on the door a second time. "NO ROOM!" Charlie repeated, a bit louder and with more self-confidence this time. The teachers let out a sigh of relief.
Banging on the door even harder the third time, desperately seeking space for themselves and their soon-to-be-born baby, Joseph and Mary pleaded with the innkeeper, "Please, is there any room in the inn?" 
Overcome by the drama unfolding around him and moved with kindness, Charlie forgot his line. 
"Oh," he said, "why don't you take my room tonight?" 
The pageant came to a complete halt, and the teachers were open-mouthed.  Some parents were upset. After all, they had spent big bucks on their children's costumes and had hoped a casting agent might be in the audience. 
However, for those who had come that evening seeking the presence of God in a complex and jaded world, Charlie's spontaneous words reminded them of something terribly important: To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. 
What if we were to live our lives being intentionally kinder to people – maybe even to people we do not know?  Could intentionally committing random acts of kindness improve our outlook on these still cold and wintry days?  Could doing so allow God’s light to flood our lives – and even the lives of others?
After all, actor Bob Hope once wisely quipped, "If you haven't any charity in your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble." And once again, scientific studies bear that out, agreeing that tremendous physical, psychological, and I would say spiritual benefits await those who are simply kind.  
Kindness produces serotonin which generates that feeling of calmness and can even help heal wounds.  People also feel enhanced self-esteem and more energetic when they are looking out for someone other than themselves.  Engaging in acts of kindness can reduce blood pressure and feelings of stress.
Studies have also found that people who were altruistic and actually gave money away were, overall, the happiest folks around. In addition, The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation reported that simply witnessing acts of kindness produces oxytocin, occasionally referred to as the “love hormone” which aids in lowering blood pressure and improving overall heart-health.  Imagine if you were doing rather than just witnessing!
And did you know that being kind can help you love longer?  Christine Carter, in her book entitled Raising Happiness:  In Pursuit of Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, writes:  “People 55 and older who volunteer for two or more organizations have an impressive 44 percent lower likelihood of dying early, and that's after sifting out every other contributing factor, including physical health, exercise, gender, habits like smoking, marital status and many more. This is a stronger effect than exercising four times a week.”  A guilt-free way to skip the gym?  Not really – but certainly a guilt-free way to augment your time at the gym!
And so this week,  I challenge you to experiment with another possible spiritual practice.  I challenge you to intentionally initiate random acts of kindness.  And what a good week to do that too!  After all, February 11th, Tuesday, is the beginning of Random Acts of Kindness Week, a tradition begun 25 years ago.  
If you choose to participate in this challenge, I trust that you will find – as we saw in the videos – that kindness begets more kindness.  I hope you will also recognize that we become kinder with practice.  As one blogger I read this week reminded us, “The trick you need to know:  Acts of kindness need to be repeated.  Biochemically, you can’t live on the 3-4 minute oxytocin boost that comes from a single act.”
In your bulletin, you have list of possible random acts of kindness that you might consider.  It is certainly not exhaustive, but it will be a starting point.  Pick one or two – and just do them. You also have a card to leave for or give to that person or group of people who will benefit from your act of kindness. I have tried to include acts of kindness for both introverts and extraverts.
In closing then, let me remind you that, as Christians, we are called to live by the words of Micah – to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  That is what Jesus did.  That is what Jesus modeled for us. 
 As  Lutheran pastor Keven Ruffcorn wrote, “In his life and ministry, Jesus both taught and demonstrated that all people have value. All people are children of God. Jesus touched the lepers and healed them. 
He associated with women and even welcomed them to be among his followers. Jesus broke down the artificial barriers created by religious leaders and reached out to include Gentiles and people who worshiped other gods. (And this is critical:) For Jesus there was no ‘us’ and ‘them’, there was only ‘we’.’ 
And when you and I realize that there is only “we” , when we recognize that sometimes we are bound one to another only by the fragile tendrils of random acts of kindness, when we embrace those realties, we will feel a spark ignited deep in our hearts.  It will be like someone finally turned a light on in our lives.  And that sliver of light may be just enough to cause our Spiritual Affective Disorder to first diminish and then to simply disappear. 

Isaiah 9:1-4 "Spiritual Affective Disorder: Laughter"

         The pastor stood in the pulpit and gazed out over her congregation.  She then announced that she had prepared not one, not two, but three sermons for that Sunday, and the congregation could choose which one she would preach.  Such a deal!
"I have a $1000 sermon that will last about five minutes,”  she told the parishioners.  
“Or - I have a $500 sermon that will take about 15 minutes,” she continued, the congregation leaning forward in rapt attention in order to catch her every word.
“And, finally,”  she concluded, “ I have a $100 sermon that will take over an hour to preach.”  
She paused for a moment to let it all sink in.  “And now we will receive our morning offering to see which sermon I will be giving."
         There is nothing like a good laugh to lift you out of the winter doldrums.  And that is going to be our focus this morning as we continue to delve into Spiritual Affective Disorder and seek to  illuminate the simple daily activities that could well become spiritual practices, bringing more light – God’s light – into our lives.
         However, perhaps before we can bask in the light, we need to embrace the darkness.  That is certainly what the old prophet Isaiah thought.  He had often reminded the Jewish people of the darkness in which they kept finding themselves – and now their circumstances were darker than ever.  
         You see, around 745 BCE, the Assyrian Empire was strong and getting stronger.  It posed a tremendous threat to the surrounding tribes and nations, including Israel, which by now was divided: the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south. The northern kingdom joined forces with Syria to resist the Assyrian Empire. The kingdom of Judah caved to the pressure and bowed to the enemy.  
         In the end, however, what with constant raiding, looting, and betrayals, with families, friends, and property lost, with the God of Israel forgotten and other gods turned to, the once proud but perennially disobedient people of Yahweh/God were the first to be conquered, overrun, and eventually deported.  
         It could not get much darker than that:  the tribe decimated, the Temple in Jerusalem a pile of rubble.  Lutheran pastor Donald Peterson described the kind of darkness that enveloped these hapless Israelites: Not physical darkness, something worse, a spiritual, emotional, or mental Darkness that blinds us, a Darkness that’s impenetrable and never-ending, and one that isn’t imaginary or just in our heads.  The Darkness is real, powerful and persistent and it’s not something that’ll go away if we just ignore it.” 
The curtain goes up on a completely darkened stage, and in this darkness a solitary circle of light from a street lamp comes on. Comedian Karl Valentin, with a long and worried look on his face, walks around and around in this circle of light, desperately looking for something. A police officer joins him and asks what he has lost. 
He said, "The key to my house." 
They both go around and around the lamp post looking for the key. After a while the policeman asks him: "Are you sure you lost it here?" 
"Oh no," said Valentin, "I lost it over there," as he points to a dark corner of the stage.
"Then why in the world are you looking for it here?" asks the policeman.
"There is no light over there," said Valentin.
 It was into such seemingly never-ending darkness that the words of the prophet echoed off its farthest reaches:  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  Those who live in the land of deep darkness, on them has light shone…”  Words of hope, words of light, in a time of hopelessness, in a time of darkness.
         Who would have thought that one more time God would have forgiven and embraced God’s chosen people?  Who would have thought that God would not have finally given up on them?
         Surely the ancient faithful greeted the words of Isaiah not only with sighs of relief and prayers of thanksgiving, but I bet someone chortled, laughed.  Laughed to keep from crying perhaps, but more likely laughed out of joy and gratitude.  
         Over the past 2000+ years, we in the church have done an outstanding job of molding Christianity into such serious and forbidding business. Remember Jonathan Edwards classic line in his memorable sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of any Angry God?  “The God that holds you over the pit of hell,” he shouted, “much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, (that God) abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.”  
Yikes!  For the Puritanical Edwards – and for many of our right wing conservative Christian brothers and sisters today, religion is no laughing matter.
         However, the Bible is rife with references – direct and indirect – to laughter.  Our God is a God of Love, and surely love at its best can invoke nothing but laughter and joy.
A little boy opened the big family bible. He was fascinated as he fingered through the old pages. Suddenly, something fell out of the Bible. He picked up the object and looked at it. What he saw was an old leaf that had been pressed in between the pages. 
"Mama, look what I found", the boy called out. 
"What have you got there, dear?" she answered.
With astonishment in the young boy's voice, he replied, "I think it's Adam's underwear!"
Well, I do not know whether the mythological story of Adam and Eve ever included laughter.  However, later in that same book of Genesis, we find Abraham letting loose with a loud guffaw when God told him that his elderly, long barren, wife, Sarah, would have a baby:  “May a man a hundred years old have a child?”  Abraham asks between snorts of merriment.  “Will Sarah, at ninety years old, give birth?”
         Sarah too found the whole situation equally funny – not only the prospect of having a baby, but also doing what would be necessary to get pregnant in the first place:  “Now that I am used up,” she snickers, “am I still to have pleasure, my husband himself being old?”
         Of course, it came to pass as God had told them.  And when their son was born, Abraham and Sarah named him Isaac, which in Hebrew means laughter.  
         “A time to laugh and a time to weep”…. “Even while laughing the heart may be sad….”  Ecclesiastes…Proverbs.  It is all there.  
         And surely Jesus meant for his listeners to laugh.  As blogger Leah Schade commented, people “loved to be around him because he told humorous stories, poked fun at the stuffy religious leaders, and rode that donkey like a tricycle into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.”
There was the real knee slapper he told about the widow who kept pestering the judge for justice until he could not stand it anymore and gave in to her.  And what about the hilarious tale of the person who tossed pebbles at that bedroom window in the dead of night until his friend finally woke up, stuck his head out, and asked what on earth he was doing, dragging him out of sound sleep – for what?  
And then we have the Beatitudes:  “Blessed are you who weep now, for one day you shall laugh.”  And of course, God had the last laugh when everyone thought that Jesus was deader than a doornail, but soon enough found out differently.
A couple had two little boys, ages 8 and 10, who were always getting into trouble.  If any mischief occurred, these boys were likely involved.
Now their mother knew that the local pastor had been successful in disciplining children, so she asked if he would speak with her boys. The pastor agreed, but asked to see them individually. So the mother sent the younger one first.
The pastor, a huge man with a booming voice, sat the younger boy down and asked him sternly, "Young man, where is God?"
The boy's mouth dropped open, but he made no response.  The pastor looked all around him and repeated the question in an even sterner tone, "Where is God!!?" Again the boy did not answer. So the pastor raised his voice even more and shook his finger in the boy's face and bellowed, "WHERE IS GOD!?"
The boy shrieked and bolted from the room, ran home, and hid in his closet, slamming the door behind him. When his older brother found him, he asked, "What happened?"
The younger brother, terrified, replied, "We are in BIG trouble this time, dude. God is missing - and they think WE did it!"
It feels good to laugh in a darkened world.  Moments of laughter allow just a sliver of light to get into our hearts and psyches, but just a sliver is likely enough to begin to let the light of God in.  And besides, it just feels good to take time out to laugh when things are not going the way we would hope in our lives – not laughing at the circumstances but laughing in spite of the circumstances.  
 We do not laugh at the cancer diagnosis, but perhaps we laugh at the baby who is herself bubbling over with laughter when she finds her toes for the very first time.  We do not laugh at the refugees fleeing the violence that characterizes their homelands, but perhaps we laugh when we spot the first robins migrating north in spring.  We do not laugh at what sometimes seems the hopelessness of climate change, but perhaps we laugh at the crocuses that insist upon blooming year after year just inches from the snow in our backyards.  
Developing laughter as a spiritual practice will probably mean embracing a paradigm shift in our lives, but it is worth it.   As we saw in the movie clip earlier, Patch Adams clearly thought that  laughter was the best medicine – and I believe that he is not alone.  
Laughter has such God-given power to heal and restore.  Remember as children?  Most of us used to laugh literally hundreds of times a day, but we lost that capacity somewhere along the way. In the end, however, laughter is good for you – and a variety of studies support that fact.  
Laughter relaxes you.  Did you know that a good, hearty laugh relieves physical tension and stress, leaving your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes after?
Laughter boosts your immune system by decreasing stress hormones and increasing infection-fighting antibodies.  Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals, even as it improves the function of blood vessels, increasing blood flow. And nothing diffuses anger and conflict faster than a shared laugh. Looking at the funny side can put problems into perspective and enable you to move on without clutching at bitterness or resentment.
And here is a good one!  Laughter burns calories. It is no replacement for going to the gym or the pool, but one study found that laughing for 10 to 15 minutes a day can burn approximately 40 calories—which could be enough to lose three or four pounds over the course of a year.
Comedian George Burns once quipped, ““The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, and to have the two as close together as possible.”

So I am going to take his advice, and wrap this sermon up with a challenge to you. I want you to try to embrace laughter and experiment with it as a spiritual practice this week.  
First,  I challenge you to find something to laugh at each day – not derisive laughter at an outrageous tweet or sarcastic and scornful laughter at someone else’s misfortune.  Rather, I challenge you to laugh at yourself perhaps or to laugh at something that brings you joy. 
Laugh because you are only human.  Laugh because you recognize that your life has blessings, that there is something about it to be grateful for. Be like the Dali Lama, photos of whom often show him smiling and even giggling during interviews.  In other words, intentionally lighten up.
Second, help put together a congregational booklet of spiritual practices we can all use to confront Spiritual Affective Disorder.  I have already had one person request a copy for her to use as part of her personal healing process following upcoming knee replacement surgery. 
Last week, I asked you to send me songs that brought you joy and light – and I am still waiting for more of you to do that. This week, I challenge you to find a religious joke that you find funny and text it to me, or email it, or write it down, or tell me during coffee hour today.  If you do not know any religious jokes off the top of your head, just put “religious jokes” or “holy humor” into your internet browser. I guarantee you will find something that will make you chuckle. Maybe it will be a joke like this one:
The Pope arrives at JFK airport, and a driver holding a hand-lettered sign that says, “Pope.” meets him in baggage claim. After getting the Pope’s luggage loaded in the limousine, the driver notices that the Pope is still standing on the curb. 
“Hey, Mr. Pope,” says the driver, “why have you not seated yourself in my excellent limo?” 
“Well, to tell you the truth,” says the Pope, “they never let me drive at the Vatican, and I’d really like to drive.” 
“That is very much against the rules!” protests the driver. 
“There might be something extra in it for you,” replies the Pope coyly.
Reluctantly, the driver gets in the backseat, and the Pope gets behind the wheel. However, the driver quickly regretted his decision when, after leaving the airport, the Pope accelerated to 105 mph.
         “Please do not drive so rapidly, Mr. Pope,” pleaded the worried driver, but the Pope kept the pedal to the metal. Within moments, they heard the siren and saw the flashing blue lights behind them. 
The Pope pulled over and rolled down the window as the police officer approached, but the cop took one look at him, went back to his squad car, and got on the radio.
         “I need to talk to the Chief,” he said to the dispatcher.
When the Chief got on the radio, the cop told him that he had stopped a limo going a hundred and five. 
“So bust him,” said the Chief. 
“I think the guy’s a big shot,” said the cop. 
“All the more reason.” 
“No, I mean really a big shot,” said the cop. 
“What’d ya got there, the Mayor?” 
“Bigger than that.” 
“Well,” said the Chief, “who is it, then?”
“I don’t know,” said the cop. “But he’s got the Pope driving for him.”
Amen and Amen.