(Message delivered by Rev. Dr. David McAllister on February 11, 2024)
After the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, the prayer of Saint Francis is likely one of the most recognizable readings around. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love.” That alone can keep us busy, for there is a lot of hatred around today. There is hatred toward blacks, whites, people of brown skin, Asians, and more. There is hatred of Jews, Muslims, Christians, atheists, and more. There is hatred of people who don’t do things the way we want them done, and hatred of people who even do things better than us. There is a lot of need for the love that St. Francis prayed about, the love that Jesus preached about and lived in his life, the love that we are to show to one another, as well as to God. We are instruments of that love, but do we always play those instruments in harmony? Let’s look and see if we just might be able to do more.
Let us start with, “Where there is injury, pardon.” That is the challenging one that Peter asked about, as he contemplated life together as a community of faith. Forgiveness. Somehow “pardon” seems like such a gracious action, but it still means “forgiveness.” And Peter wanted to know how far he had to go with that. “If someone sins against me, should I be forgiving as many as seven times?” Peter thought he was being generous with that number. Now Jesus’ answer has been translated in a couple of ways. Jesus either says, “seventy-seven times,” or “seventy times seven,” which is of course 490 times. Either way, the number is so large as to imply that forgiveness is endless, and, even if we have a limit, after seventy-seven times, or 490 times, we will reasonably lose track of how forgiving we have been and need to start all over. But forgiveness would seem to need limits for most of us. Can we be greater instruments of pardon?
It is interesting to read the story of Paul’s conversion, and then the portion of the story that follows immediately where Ananias is told to go and minister to Paul, the portion that we read a short time ago. And notice, although Ananias is a faithful disciple of the risen Christ, when God tells him to go, he stops short and questions God, basically saying, “Uh God, maybe you haven’t been paying attention, but this is the guy who has been creating havoc in Jerusalem and now he is out to get the rest of us.” And God says, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.”
I am sure you noticed that word - God doesn’t refer to Paul as an Apostle, or a teacher, or a missionary, but God sees Paul as an “instrument.” God is going to use Paul. God is going to show Paul the way to reach Gentiles and Jews and even kings. Paul is becoming God’s instrument in that very moment. So, Ananias needs to go, to not look back at his own feelings, but to look forward to what God is doing.
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace - let me sow love, pardon, faith, hope, light and joy.” Did you notice that those last four – faith, hope, light and joy – those are ones that lift us up, and we are to share those gifts with others that we might lift them up as well.
Yes, we too are called to be God’s instruments, just as Francis so clearly identified that for himself.
Now, using the word “instrument” is fascinating, because it has such a variety of meanings. Doctors and dentists use instruments to bring healing. Musicians play instruments, to provide comfort, solace, joy, peace, and more. And we are called to bring healing, joy, peace and more through the efforts of our spirits reaching out and touching the lives of others. We are God’s instruments. We are the hands and feet of God in a world that is much in need. People need to know God, to know that God loves them, and one of the surest ways that all happens is through our being effective instruments of God. And our music spreads peace and love and joy, as long as we listen to how God wants us to be those instruments.
Now I know you all well enough to know that you faithfully serve as God’s instruments in many and varied ways. And yet, I think that we always do well to pray this prayer, for we are each and every day being further shaped into being God’s instruments in serving others.
It is worth noting that in some translations the word “instrument” is called “a vessel.” We don’t use that word too often today, but it is a container that would have been shaped by a potter, just as God shapes us in order to use us. And the image of a vessel is of something that holds a substance, a substance that can flow from that vessel.
And I would suggest to you that the second part of Francis’ prayer is talking about what that vessel is holding. He prays, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” In other words, “Oh God, help me to pour out the self-interest and self-centeredness of my life, and help me to fill the vessel with your goodness and love and joy and peace, that I might then share those gifts with others.”
Jesus continually talked about thinking of others first, of going the extra mile to help folks, of serving others rather than waiting to be served ourselves. Jesus knew what it was to take God’s joy and peace, God’s very love, into himself, and he showered those gifts upon others precisely because he had filled himself with them, and had allowed the self-interest to go.
This coming Wednesday we will begin a season of opening ourselves to be shaped and formed by God into more and more beautiful instruments of his love and grace. Our Lenten journey will take us down a path that perhaps will have many beautiful moments, and also perhaps some pretty big boulders to climb over. It is a journey that will lead us to Jerusalem, to shout Hosannas along with the crowds, to a cross that some planned would stop this Jesus movement, to an empty tomb. And, along the way, we will seek to encounter Jesus with a purer vision, hear with deeper understanding, and become closer to the one who tunes our instruments to be all they are meant to be, so that we can pray, in all honesty, for God to continue using us as He would want.
As we finish our reflection upon this prayer, let us recognize that Francis, even as he prayed, knew that being an instrument of God’s love and grace was a gift to us as well. For he acknowledged that “it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
Francis echoes teachings of Jesus there – especially the idea of letting go of those things that hold us back, that hold us down, that we might become more of who God shapes us to be, more of who God hopes we chose to become.
“Lord, make us instruments of your peace.” And we pray that the music we bring, is pleasing to you.
(Message delivered by Rev. Dr. David McAllister, on December 3, 2023.)
Our first candle in our wreath this year, as you discovered, is the candle of Miracles. If you think about all of the stories that go to make up the biblical account of the birth of Jesus, you will remember that they are filled with stories of miraculous happenings.
We have the visits of angels, multiple visits. We have the news that Elizabeth and Zechariah, both well up in years, are going to have a child.
We have Mary, of course, who is found to be with child, with the Angel Gabriel giving her the news of that miracle.
We have, one might say, a man of great virtue in Joseph, who could rightly have sent Mary away, and yet who astounds us with his compassion, his grace, and his willingness to listen to his dreams, and to believe in the miracle shared with him.
Now, of course, if you go beyond the biblical stories, we find that works of literature and film surrounding Christmas are also filled with the fanciful and the miraculous. Think of the angel, Clarence, in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Or Cary Grant, as the angel in the “Bishop’s Wife,” bringing about one miraculous happening after another. We have story after story of Christmas being saved in miraculous ways. And, certainly, who can miss the miracle in the story of the Grinch when his heart grows and grows well beyond any expectations.
Miracles are a part of Christmas. And, even if someone has a hard time believing in miracles, they might just come a little closer to believing at this time of year. Perhaps another miracle in the process?
And, for those of us who focus more on the biblical birth stories, one verse that definitely captures the essence of all of this is something spoken to Mary by the angel Gabriel - “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Nothing will be impossible. That is a pretty astounding statement. It doesn’t necessarily say that everything we want and hope for will happen, but nothing, even our wildest imaginings, is impossible.
It is interesting to read the Bible, because it is filled with many stories that are fanciful in nature – the donkey talking with Balaam, the waters of the sea parting so that the Israelites could pass through them, the walls of Jericho falling down, along with what we see to be miracles, such as the paralyzed man walking, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and many more. And yes, there are, and probably always will be, those who just think those events simply couldn’t happen, so don’t believe. Yet, for those who wrote them, for those who recounted them around campfires for centuries, these were stories of events that had happened, stories that shaped their lives, their faith, their understanding of God, for whom nothing was impossible.
Through what I believe is God’s guiding and grace, we have made so many scientific discoveries in the last few centuries, and especially in recent decades, which have shed light on life itself, on our planet and the universe it is a part of, and on our own selves as we share life with one another. These discoveries are amazing.
And yet, there are also many things which defy explanation. A man with terminal cancer visits the doctor, and somehow, inexplicably, the cancer has disappeared. An animal, thought to be extinct, is glimpsed through a camera image, surprising everyone. A person feels in danger, and yet there is a strange presence that brings comfort and peace, and the threat vanishes. Was that perhaps an angel? Things which defy explanation. For with God, nothing is impossible.
I am of course not saying that everything we want and hope for will happen because we ask for it of the God of possibilities. But, one never knows what might happen as we trust in that God.
But I also want us to consider miraculous happenings that come about in part because we believe, and we act. In the movie, “Bruce Almighty,” Morgan Freeman plays the character of God, and Jim Carrey is a disgruntled news reporter who feels that he can do as well as God in managing the world. So, God gives Bruce the power, and takes a vacation. As you can imagine, things don’t do as well as Bruce thinks they should, although he does have his moments.
In one scene, Bruce sits in a diner and parts the soup in his bowl, a la the Exodus parting of the sea. Later though, when God talks to Bruce about such miracles, he says, “Parting your soup is not a miracle, Bruce. It's a magic trick. A single mom who’s working two jobs and still finds time to take her kid to soccer practice, that’s a miracle. A teenager who says “no” to drugs and “yes” to an education, that's a miracle. People want me to do everything for them. But what they don’t realize is THEY have the power. You want to see a miracle, son? Be the miracle.” And then I think Bruce understands a little bit better.
It is a fascinating thought, that we have the power to bring about miracles. Maybe, that is part of how God acts to bring about seemingly impossible things. The building of a youth center, where previously there was just an empty lot. The giving of life to children through adoption. The joyous smile on the face of a shut-in as meals are delivered. The sharing of life in a church among people who never knew each other before they came together in God’s name. The transformation of this sanctuary and the fellowship hall, into places of great beauty and wonder that help us to celebrate this season.
You know, maybe the best miracles involve God and us holding hands as we touch the lives of others.
Yes, the fact that Elizabeth and Zechariah are blessed with a child in their elder years, is a miracle. But maybe the greater miracle is their years of faithful living with God when their prayers had not been answered.
Joseph, who could have taken the easy way out and divorced Mary, miraculously chooses God’s way, and offers both grace and love to Mary.
Mary, who had to have been overwhelmed with the news that she would have a baby, and who could have run away, fleeing for her life, instead chooses to trust the angel, to trust God, and it makes all the difference. Miraculous choices.
As we move through this Advent season, we will encounter both the miraculous and the ordinary. But even the ordinary, infused with the presence of God, with the possibilities of God, is extraordinary, even miraculous.
We will be surrounded by the flutter of angel wings, by the wonder of music and the joy of children. We will tell ancient stories and ask God to reveal new meanings to us in this season. We will give gifts to women and children who have far less than we do, and in the process bring gifts of joy as well, not only for them but the gift of joy we too receive in giving.
The possibilities of miracles are all around us. With God, nothing is impossible. And we, just maybe, might be a part of those miracles that God plans.
(Message delivered by Rev. Dr. David McAllister, on October 15, 2023.)
Jazz and Life
When I think of beauty, what comes to mind first, is nature in all of its splendor. God’s creation surrounds us, and I marvel at the intricacies of a flower, the minutiae of an insect, the wind that we see in the trees and the clouds, the seemingly infinite number of greens that we can see in everything from grass to plants to trees and more.
And, as I expand my experience of finding beauty, I stop and rest in the beauty of people I know, seeing the incredible beauty within their spirits. You know what I mean - whether is it joy that we see as it bubbles out and touches someone else, or the giving nature of someone who is always thinking of others first and the light that shines on others, or the quiet and peaceful disposition that seems unflappable, or the deep faith that we admire as we watch it in action.
I also find much beauty in art. And with this, each of us is unique in where we see the most beauty, whether it be in paintings, photography, sculptures and so on, that in a unique way touches our spirits.
The beauty of the theatre is not always in the set or the costumes, although it often is there, but if the play is a good one then the beauty is in the power of the words and the emotions too, and in the ability of the actors and actresses to bring them to life. The director of a play is an artist, arranging and sculpting all of the elements available into a work of art.
Then there is music. There is music for every taste and every spirit. And we are privileged to have a wonderful musical program here at Gateway, with wonderful musicians. It is sometimes said that the acoustics enhance the sound, and that is no doubt true, because the concert musicians that we host in our Gateway Performance Series indeed love the space, but it is also true that we have dedicated singers and our wonderful director and accompanists who bring forth joyful and moving songs that enhance our worship and touch our spirits. There is life and joy and challenge and beauty in the music, and it is brought to life wonderfully each week.
When I was working on my doctoral program, one of the courses that I took had to do with Jazz, and some insightful connections to the life that we share in the church. In fact, I preached a sermon about Jazz shortly after taking that class, and it so happened that we had visitors that Sunday, a new Jazz professor at UCLA and his family. And it made for an interesting conversation at least after worship.
As we prepared for yesterday’s Jazz concert with Michael, Alan and the other musicians, I thought that perhaps this might be a Sunday to once again reflect upon the themes from that class. At the time, it was very new to me, but I have always remembered much that I experienced there.
I have in my collection a couple of CDs that are what I would describe as easy-listening Jazz. They are mellow, they are easy to be with, they are peaceful for me. Then I have much more challenging works, pieces where the musicians seem to be competing with one another, where the music can seem discordant, where peaceful is far from my mind. I enjoy both styles of Jazz because they speak to me in different ways. They also reflect different experiences of life.
There are times when we are in a good spot, when we are feeling peaceful, and at peace with life and the world around us. And there are those times when life is topsy-turvy, even upside down, and discord is the message of the day. And just as music and art for me, with their various forms, reflect these varied experiences of life, so too does the ministry of this church respond to the diversity of life experiences that we go through - moments of feeling at total peace with all around us, and yes, those moments when we gather together to turn right side up those times of disquiet. Yes, part of the beauty of this ministry is that we are present in all times, in all circumstances, with one another.
One of the characteristics of Jazz is that it is enriched through the improvisational expertise of its musicians. As I have learned through even minimal exposure to members of ensembles and orchestras, including the Alan Chan Jazz Orchestra, and Michael’s quartet yesterday, it is the ability to improvise that gives Jazz a part of its unique flavor. At times, members of an ensemble may not have even met before the night of a gig, and yet their rich knowledge of music allows them to play off of one another, to improvise, to create, and to celebrate the places that others in the ensemble go with the music, and in all of that, there is beauty.
This, I feel, is much the way we are called to live life.
When we hear well the words of the psalmist that I shared earlier: “O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth. Sing to the LORD, bless God’s name; tell of God’s salvation from day to day. Declare God’s glory among the nations, God’s marvelous works among all the peoples.” - we hear that we too are to be about the creation of joy. We are to sing a new song. We are not just to be and live and do in the same ways that we always have, but we are to sing in new ways, yes, improvise. The beauty of the church, the beauty of ministry, should always be unfolding in fresh ways, just as our own lives are fresh each morning. And we are to sing new songs.
When Jazz musicians improvise, they are bringing forth new out of the old. They are drawing upon the rich tradition of those who have gone before them, and are creating new sounds.
In the life of the church, we too draw upon and are never separated from what came before us. In fact, we trace our roots not only back two thousand years to the time when Jesus walked this earth, but we harken back to the Psalmists and others we encounter along our pathway, in order to ground ourselves in the history and traditions of our faith. And out of that tradition, with its impact always before us, we too are able to sing a new song.
This song springs forth out of our continuing quest to form a deeper understanding of the teachings of Christ. And because of this desire, we are an ever-evolving community of faith, striving to be that community that Jesus envisioned for us. And again, here too Jazz, I believe, offers us an interesting insight into the uniqueness of our own church family. For it is a wonderful quality of Jazz that each musician has his or her own distinctive voice, playing solos that accentuate their instrument and their own particular talent, and yet all the members of a quartet or orchestra work together to achieve a full and complete sound.
And, I know you caught the comparison I wanted to make, for that is exactly what we do here. We create the beauty of ministry through the creativity of each participant, through the sharing of gifts, through teamwork and support of one another. And, in the church, what is ultimately important is not the showcasing of our individual talents, but the joining together in the singing of a new song to God, declaring God’s glory among the nations, sharing God’s marvelous works among all peoples, and doing so in beautiful harmony.
Beauty is a gift, a gift from God. Whether it is the beauty of a sunset, or of a work of art, or of marvelous music, and so many other forms of beauty, beauty touches our lives with grace and power and joy. The beauty of this church, the beauty of our ministry together, is also a gift from God. It is a gift that we are given and a gift that we are called to continue creating.
As I look out at you each Sunday, both in-person and through the Zoom connections, as I see you at various times during the week, again, both in-person and on Zoom, I celebrate the beauty that you bring to my life, and the beauty of our life together. And in our acceptance of God’s gift, we are a gift to each other in God’s Name.