The Jewish holiday Hanukkah began this past Thursday evening. Many of us know that it lasts eight nights with candles being lit each night, but are uncertain of anything else. In 167 BCE, Seleucid king Antiochus IV invaded Judea and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. He sought to Hellenize the Jews, while Jewish father and son Mattathias and Judas Maccabeaus gathered a group who fought to protect their religion. After a three year struggle that ended with a Jewish victory, Judas called for the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. However, they found only enough oil to light the menorah in the Temple for one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days until new oil could be found. Those eight nights are celebrated by the holiday, progressively lighting more candles on the menorah each night, until all eight are lit.

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Ralphie stood in line with his brother Randy waiting. This was it. His last best chance to get his much longed-for Christmas gift. He had tried many ways to tell his parents about his hoped for present, and he eloquently expressed his desire in a theme for his teacher, and at every point he was rebuffed. They didn’t understand why a boy would want a BB gun. And not just any BB gun, mind you, but an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two hundred shot range model air rifle. So he waited in line to tell it to Santa who just so happened to be at the Higbees Department Store.

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So which are you? A sheep? Or a goat? I didn’t notice many of you carefully choosing up sides this morning when you came in, picking instead your regular places. And if you did, I suspect you had to go over in your head a few times as to which side of the church you really wanted to be on. Is it the Son of Man’s left and right? So if he’s standing in front looking at us, then it’s reversed for the crowd, right? Or is it the other way round?

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There’s a book about a West African fable that I share with the confirmation class titled, What Is My Song? In it a boy describes how even before he was born, his mother listened to the wind—or was it to the Spirit—as she sat out under the baobab tree for the song of her desired child. When she picks up the tune and words, she shares it with her spouse. They sang when the young boy was born, and taught to the village community. 

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“Do you want to know what the kingdom of God is like?” Jesus asks his disciples one day. A wedding. Now, friends, whether I like to admit it or not, I’m in the wedding business. Yes, there’s less for me these days as people get friends to either fill out an online ordination application or apply for a one day license from the state, but those are one-offs. For better or worse, I’m a wedding professional and know the ins and outs of marriage licenses and photographers and the like.

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The gospel lesson we just heard from the Sermon on the Mount contains some of the most well known verses in the Bible. Blessed are the meek and the poor and the hungry and the peacemakers. But because we’ve heard them so often, they really don’t have the same gravitas they once did.

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A friend of mine mentioned to me a number of years ago how difficult attending church was for him when he went through a rough spell in his life.  He was going through a divorce and was exceptionally lonely.  He had to change churches along the way—in a divorce it seems, even in spite of the best intentions of the clergy person, someone gets the church—and so walking into a new church as a middle-aged single man was hard because not many folks reached out to him. He would be almost entirely ignored during the peace.  He would often go to coffee hour and stand by himself while others mingled around him.  He’s a gregarious person, mind you, but church was painful.

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You can hear our gospel writer Matthew the Evangelist nearly shout to Jesus in the set-up to today’s lesson the renowned words of Admiral Ackbar from “Star Wars: Episode VI— Return of the Jedi”: “It’s a trap!” The Pharisees and Herodians have made strange bedfellows and have slithered their way over to Jesus in order to snare him with an unanswerable question. You can hear their sliminess in their opening words. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” Oh, they try hard to butter him up there in the beginning. They express this false praise in order to manipulate the people listening in. They hope that the ones standing nearby will not see what this is really all about, because they want to entangle Jesus right in front of them. And that’s when they go in for the kill: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

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We’ve had 24 hour news coverage here in the US since January 1, 1980 when CNN first launched on cable. That’s more than 42 years now of hearing news updates around the clock. And you know as well as I do that most of that news has not been of the feel-good variety. Rather it’s a lot of bad or even awful news, with a heavy dose of fear to go with it. That’s a lot of negativity even when there isn’t a major catastrophic event like what’s currently taking place in Israel and Gaza.

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On one of my first forays into the desert southwest, I found a children’s book called Coyote: A trickster tale from the American Southwest.  A large blue coyote graces the cover.  The story begins by telling us that Coyote had a nose for trouble, and he soon finds his way to a mesa where some crows are chanting and dancing.  Coyote wants to dance too, so he asks old man crow if he can join them.

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