Category Archives: Sermons

Love is the only Torch We carry

Love is the only Torch we carry

By Nathan Decker

O, Virginia… watching the events of this weekend in Charlottesville brought me pain.   To see torches again used as beacons of hatred in my lifetime, Lord, have mercy on us.  When a group of white nationalists with anti-immigrant beliefs rapes the torch of Lady Liberty, the irony should not be lost.  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” has once again been trampled on by members of the Know-Nothing party of the 1800’s.  We shouldn’t be afraid of the light.  The flame of torches usually represents people coming together.  In the past, I have proudly watched the torch represent efforts for peace at the Olympics, hope for new discovery in Education, and the eternal flame of Wisdom guiding us.  Shame on us for making it symbol of division and fear!

Much of what transpired this weekend was based in fear and grief.  The city of Chartlottesville’s decision to take down a statue ripped off the band-aid on the surgical wound our nation has been dealing with ever since the Constitution told African-Americans they were 3/5 human.  Our nation’s history is complex and up for interpretation and retelling.  Each generation takes up the momentous task of looking back with guilt and pride in an effort to plow a new path into the future.  There are always attempts at shouting the loudest to diminish the voices of others.

As we stand up against the evil of white supremacy, we have to acknowledge the grief that is being expressed.  The way history is told in this nation has mostly been from a white perspective as if whites were the only leaders and contributors.  In recent years this wrong is being righted.  Those who were silenced and oppressed have had the opportunity to add their story to the history of our nation.  White nationalists and supremacists see this as diminishing white history.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Adding missing slices to the pie only makes the pie more full and does not require us to make other slices smaller.  Yet, this is the fear I see in the eyes of those carrying torches of darkness and yelling hate.  They believe they are losing their part of the story.

We can bravely shine brighter than the faces of fear.  We can learn to build relationships with those carrying torches of hate so that we might show them light, love, and the Christ who welcomes all tribes and nations together.  We can, as friends of mine did in Charlottesville, have peaceful conversations with those with whom we disagree.  We can listen to their concerns as well as make our concerns heard.  Through the conversations that lead to relationships, we can admit that all lives matter to Christ, we are one nation made up of many, and love shines brighter.  Love is the only torch we are called to carry into the dark night of hatred and apathy.  We shall overcome by letting peace on earth begin with each of us lifting up love.  After all, it’s what Jesus would do.

 

Goodness is stronger than evil;

                Love is stronger than hate;

                Light is stronger than darkness;

                Life is stronger than death;

                Victory is ours through Him who loves us.”

                                -Bp. Desmond Tutu

Let’s be Honest, some folks aren’t going to make it!

From Matthew 13:1-9

Mrs. Smith was one helluva teacher sent from Heaven.  I know because I had her for English.  I know because I watched her put up with Ed.  Ed didn’t want to be in school, Ed didn’t want to learn the puns of Shakespeare or the alliteration of Blake, and Ed didn’t want to be told what to do.

Through it all, Mrs. Smith never gave up.  She’d offer extra time on tests he had no intention of completing.  She’d push him to enter rap lyrics into a poetry contest, but Ed didn’t do extra work.  She’d encourage him to redo the homework he turned in before she graded it, but all this was casting pearls before swine.  Ed didn’t care.  His apathy, a black hole, sucked the energy and impetus around him.  Ed didn’t care.  But Mrs. Smith cared, and she never gave up on him.

Today’s world has joined what some psychologists call the ‘cult of self.’  At the expense of self-awareness and self-limitations, we boost self-esteem eclipsing reality in exaggerated egocentric effigies of us.  We know the education system is failing, yet more students get A’s and Honors than ever before.  If a C is the average, how come so few kids get them?  Ivy League Students were surveyed and 80% of them claimed to be in the top 5% of their class.  And everyone gets a trophy.

But it’s not just kids… Social Media enables us to tell the world about us and to live in a world that revolves around us.  We Instagram what we’re eating, tweet the songs we’re singing, and post “Best Vacation Ever” every time we slip away.  Narcissism rises as we can literally count how many likes, shares, comments, friends, and followers we have.  We create monsters who no longer can be told they are incorrect and will not admit that they made a mistake all in the name of the god called self-esteem.

In Matthew 13, Jesus tells us a parable about farming.  We show up clutching to our report cards, trophies, awards and affirmations; Jesus ruins it.  God loves us, but some of us just aren’t going to get it.  The parable of the sower casting out his seeds is pretty familiar to all of us.  We know about the different types of soils: the path, the rocks, the thorns, and of course the good soil.  And each time we hear this parable, we tell ourselves the same things:  “I’m so glad I’m the good soil,” or “I used to be like that soil, but now I’m the good soil,” or “here’s a list of things I have to do to make sure I’m the good soil.”  We are so focused on ME! ME! ME! we’ve retitled this parable.  No longer is it the parable of the sower but the parable of the soil.

Jesus tells us about God.  Jesus lets us know God doesn’t give up on us.  Jesus is tells us about God’s wasteful generosity.  A farmer goes out to plant.  How many farmers do you know cast seed out on Highway 58?  How many farmers do you know throw seed on rocks or among thorns on purpose?  How many farmers do you know who are tighter than spandex on an 800 lbs gorilla?  Farmers I know count their fingers after they shake your hand.

God is not your average farmer.  Our Lord is so generous every soil gets seed.  God loves the road.  God loves us when we are hard and mean as asphalt.  God loves the rocky soil.  God loves us when we are shallow, undisciplined, and unwilling to let his love affect us deeply.  God loves the soil with thorns and thistles.  God loves us when we let money, worry, friends, and family come before what really matters.  God loves the good soil.  God loves us when we are ready to receive his Word, take it into our lives, and bear fruit.

This is not a story about us.  This is a story about God’s wasteful generosity.  God is willing to love even when there is little chance the love will be returned.  Our part in the story is to love like God loves.

Jesus sat down by the sea and told us a story about God: the most generous, loving, wasteful farmer the world has ever known.  Let’s be honest, some folks are just not going to get it, but that doesn’t stop God from loving them.  It shouldn’t stop us from loving as well.  God gives so much grace in the world that some of the grace is going to waste.  Some folks just aren’t going to follow Jesus.  Yet, God doesn’t give up on them… and neither should we.  After all, it’s what Jesus would do.

I can’t do Good on my Own from James 2:8-17

Photo Credit to Robert Lentz “Christ of Maryknoll”

There once was a man who sought the answers to his life’s questions.  The Western life pursuit of Success didn’t satisfy his longing.  Traditional practice of worship sitting in a pew left him cold.  He cashed in his 401k and went searching.  He followed gurus in India in “Eat, Pray, Love” fashion.  He spent time cross legged with Monks in Thailand humming “Om.”  He even climbed a mountain and spent a year in solitude.  Everything helped, but it was as if this itch wouldn’t go away no matter how much he scratched, it all seemed like it was just the surface.  He wanted to go deeper.  He wanted his spirituality to be real, felt, whole.

 

Finally, the man heard of an old wise man who lived in Mexico City.  The man was immediately skeptical.  Weren’t the holy men supposed to live life in monasteries, temples or impeccably high cliffs?  The address that he had been given led him to a busy corner in a rough part of the city.  He arrived in the late morning.  He looked around, surrounded by abandoned buildings where squatters were just waking up and beginning to gather at the only business in sight – a 7 Eleven.  He watched as the homeless entered the establishment, each got a cup of coffee, and then came back out into the parking lot where they gathered in a circle.  Together they seemed to be sharing personal issues and struggles.  He then watched as they held hands in prayer, sang a song, and then with a collective “amen” they parted.

 

The man saw what was happening.  “This must be the group the man leads.”

He chose one of the homeless men that he assumed was the leader and began following him.  This man went two blocks down the street to a dilapidated apartment complex.  Walking into one of the apartments as if he owned it, he began working on the plumbing using tools he pulled from his pockets.  All the while a small group of children and a mother holding a baby watched on.  They all smiled at the man who had followed the homeless plumber into their abode.  They even offered him something to eat and drink.

 

After many hours work, when the plumber was finished, he looked at the man.  “What are you doing here?”

 

“Are you the wise one I seek?”  The man asked.

 

The plumber stood up smiling.  “I am not the one you seek, but I know him.”

 

“Will you take me to him?”

 

“Come tomorrow morning, get a coffee at the 7 Eleven, and he may show up for you.”

 

The man did exactly that.  He arrived, followed the homeless men into the 7 Eleven, got his cup of coffee, and joined them in the circle.   Again, they shared from their hearts about the struggles they were going through.  They shared tools of their trades so that each had what everyone needed that day.  Every time for each instance, those gathered offered support and encouragement.  Again, they prayed, sang a song.  And again, they parted to go off to work.

 

Confused, the man followed a different man, one he felt sure was the leader.  This one turned out to be a carpenter working on a nursery for a day care.  The next day he followed another – who was a retired teacher who volunteered time at the local school as a tutor.

 

He followed each of them.  The lawyer who did pro bono.  The elderly man who read books at the library all day to kids who gathered.  The brick mason who was re-pointing the bricks at the post office.  There were all kinds of workers, each using what he had in his pockets to help the community around them.

 

After he had followed each of them, none of which admitted to being the leader, he grew frustrated.  “Exactly who in God’s name is the leader here!”  He exclaimed. 

The plumber, the first man he had followed, walked over to him and frowned.  Then he slapped the man in the face.  The man was shocked.  “God is our leader.  Everything we do is in his name.  After all this time, if you don’t see, you can’t possibly be shown.”

 

Though no one told him to leave, the man left the circle.  He went to one of the abandoned buildings and wept.  The next morning, the sun beamed through the windows and warmed his face, awakening him.  He got up, went into the 7 Eleven, and gathered as if he always had in the circle.  There, he expressed his love for God.  There he sang his heart out to God.  There he said Amen.  And then he left, to find need in the community that he could provide for.

 

God called us to be Holy as God is Holy.  Like today, the early church struggled with what it meant to be holy.  Did it mean avoiding sin?  Did it mean spending time in prayer, meditation, worship?  What about good deeds?  In the conversation of grace, where do good deeds come into play?  A conservative branch of the church has always emphasized God’s forgiveness as and repentance as all that is necessary for salvation.  A liberal branch of the church has always emphasized social action, missions to help save not just the soul, but the physical body as necessary for salvation.  In the early Church, the book of James already answered the question.  Both are required.

 

I can’t do good on my own… I’m just a vessel for God’s love to flow to the world. 

 

Personal Holiness is showing our Love for God.  More precisely, it’s sharing the love of God with God.

  • Worship and prayer – not just asking but spending time with God!
  • Forgiving yourself
  • Devotions and Fasting – limiting actions so that what you do matters more
  • Not posting that obnoxious post on Facebook that you know is going to be controversial just to be controversial
  • Giving money to support the ministry
  • Reading the Bible
  • In general, not being a jerk about faith, but enjoying the compassion and love that Christ pours out upon us all freely.

 

Social Holiness is showing our Love for Neighbor, sharing the love of God with others. 

  • Sharing mercy in missions
    • backpack ministry to feed kids in poverty on the weekend
    • Mission Garden to provide fresh veggies
    • Impact 757 and going to Waverly on UMVIM trips
    • forgiving others especially when they don’t deserve it
    • visiting or writing notes to someone who’s world has shrunk to the size of their home
  • Sharing God’s vision of justice and kingdom in a broken world
    • Does God desire freedom for those enslaved to drugs, debt, or a system that is broken? Yes!
    • Does God want us concerned for refugees and immigrants? Yes!

 

In the Super Bowl of life, God has a bias, it is always for the underdog.  To be holy as God is holy requires us not just to have faith, but to do faith.  Our faith must have action attached to it.

 

Here’s the thing, though, “No Social Holiness, No Personal Holiness.”  James, “Someone might claim, you have faith and I have action.  But how can I see your faith apart from your actions?”  Truly loving God causes God to love through us to our neighbors.  Truly loving our neighbors causes us to truly love God.  If all we do is get our cup of coffee and join the circle for songs and prayers – we have personal holiness.  If all we do is go out into the world and be good people helping others – we have social holiness.  Faith without Works is dead.  Works without Faith is turning grace into a merit badge or a brownie point. 

 

Be holy as God is holy.  Love God.  Love neighbor.  This is the Gospel.  Amen.

“But I don’t want to take a Bath!”

from Isaiah 42:1-9

The little boy and girl were as close to heaven as they were to the earth.  Jessica and Jerome: fraternal and inseparable twins they were.  At age seven, they looked at the world through double lenses of reality and fantasy.  It didn’t take much in their eyes to turn a play house into a castle or a tree with low hanging branches into an attacking dragon, and behind the castle, a puddle of mud into a swimming pool.

They each took turns cannonballing into the mud and the muck.  She first noticed that you could turn it into a slip and slide if you ran first.  He figured out that you could ball up the mud and throw it (even at her).  They were in the ecstatic giggles and youthful joy when mother’s voice called them to dinner.  “Lord have mercy, how did you two get so dirty? You both will have to have a bath before dinner.”

That’s when the buts showed up.   “But mom, we don’t want to.”  “But mom, do we have to?”  “But mom, we look alright to each other.”  And in a tone that warned her that teenage years were approaching far too quickly, “Mother!”

And we understand these feelings all too well in our spiritual journey.  As Christians we see the word through double lenses.  We see the world as it is.  We see the racism that persists in our nation from generation to generation.  We weep at the funerals of police officers that have been ambushed while striving to serve and protect.  The greedy horde while the poor starve.  Nations are shutting doors to immigrants and refugees in irrational fears based on the same nationalism and prejudice that fueled the Nazi party almost 100 years ago.  The world seems to be playing its own version of Hunger games and we are all in the arena.

But as Christians, we also see the world as God believes it could and should be.  Love that sees difference of culture and skin tone not as a bad thing but as an a reflection of God’s own diverse love and color.  Righteous anger at those who abuse power, manipulate crowds with fear, and use tragedy as a means to fuel their own agendas.  Compassion for moms and dads who just want a safe place from war, rape, and unrest for their children to grow up and have it better than they did.

And in all of this God asks us to take a bath.  Our Lord invites us to awaken within our baptismal waters and be transformed by them.  Jesus wants us to be changed by his Grace, to be transformed in his Compassion, to use these waters shared with us as a gift.  God invites us to be more than a people who worship in wishes?  God invites us to be love in action.  God calls us to raise our voice for the voiceless, give our strength to the weak, and lift up those who have been pushed down.   

And that’s when the buts show up.  “But God, we don’t want to.”  “But God, do we have to?”  “But God, we look alright to each other.”  And in a tone that warns of our tendency to rebellion, “Father!”   

Isaiah preaching to the people about the Messiah speaks of who God is.  “He will bring justice to the nations.”  Our Savior brings peace and wholeness to the world.  “He won’t cry out or shout.”  Our Lord doesn’t call attention to himself. God doesn’t have an ego or need all eyes on him.  “He won’t break a bruised reed; he won’t extinguish a faint wick, but he will surely bring justice.”  He won’t brush aside those who are bruised and hurt. The smallest and most insignificant light is still precious in his eyes.  The weak will be made strong, the poor will be rich: this is God’s Kingdom, a revolution through spiritual practice.

Isaiah, preaching, gives a word from God about who we are.  God is an all-powerful God who has chosen to share that power with us.  “I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason… I’m giving you as a promise to the people, as a light to the nations.”  The Lord who created the heavens, the one who stretched the sky from east to west and north to south, the one who breathed life into your lips wants you to be the change.  God calls us to be the life in this world of death.  God calls us to be the hope in this despair.  God calls us to be the new beginning in the end of endings.

We are the folks who have taken a bath.  Jessica and Jerome didn’t want to take a bath.  So their mother gave them a different option.  A little liquid soap up into water balloons, a two water guns, and mom with the hose and bath time was no longer a chore but had become a transformed moment of joy, love, and memory.

We are the folks who have taken a bath.  We’ve been given a gift in our baptismal waters.  We are God’s promise to the nations.  We are God’s lights of joy, love, and testimony.  As we remember our Baptism today, let’s not just be wishful worshippers.  Let’s be the changed, the transformed, the renewed, those who have been washed in God’s love.  Amen.

When will We Shine?

from Isaiah 60:1-6

Harry was terrified of the light.  It wasn’t the light itself, but rather what if the lamp went out.  Harry worked in an old lighthouse, the kind that ran on oil.  The great light came from an Argand Lamp.  The oil was put in the reservoir at the top, and then it came down through a sleeve to the wick in the glass cylinder.  That meant to light it you had to lift up the glass.  All the fumes from the oil mixed with the air.  When you lit it, “WHOSH,” it came alive with light reflected through the lens and out to sea.

Harry’s job was to keep the light lit. To keep the light lit, you had to refill the reservoir every four to five hours.   Harry rarely missed a refill, in fact, he was usually early.  He hated relighting the lamp.  The whosh always scared him.  Harry was scared of the light.

A lot of us are scared of the light.  We don’t mind basking in it, feeling the warmth and the comfort.  But don’t ask us to reflect it into the world.  Don’t ask us to allow the light to shine in the dark places in our lives.  Don’t ask us to have the light shine bright enough that we stand out.  And many of us are afraid of sharing the light with friends, neighbors, and coworkers.   

In our passage from Isaiah, that was the issue with the city of Jerusalem.  She had been so long in the darkness that she was now afraid of the light.  She had seen good times.  Remember back in King David’s and Solomon’s day the city had been a jewel for all Judah.  The temple had been built alongside the palace.  Trade was booming, everyone was filled with good feelings

She had seen bad times.  She had seen times without gold and frankincense.  Times that were as dark as they had ever been.  Exiled from their land, the temple had been destroyed, and the dynasty of King David had come to a disastrous end.

She had seen ugly times of darkness.  It felt as though God’s light no longer shined.  Adrift at sea.  Alone.  I don’t have to tell you, in today’s world, the darkness is real.  In the midst of all of this, God commands Jerusalem to reflect his light, his glory, his grace.

God created us to reflect God’s light into the world of darkness.  That means we feel the warmth and the comfort of Emmanuel.  But that also means we have to “Arise or Get Up and Shine.”   It means we have to allow the darkness within our own lives to be found out by the light.  It means we have to be brave enough to stand out in our spirituality.  It means we shine the light for others.   

Harry was terrified of the light.  One night during a storm, Harry found himself snuggled so deep in sleep that he slept through the time to refuel the lamp.  He awoke with a start to the sound of a ship’s bell.  Over the waves, the wind carried it’s clanging sound.  As Harry ran up the spiral staircase, he could almost hear the worried yelling of the captain to his men on board the ship.  “Find the light! Search the horizon!  The shore must be near!”

Harry shook and quivered as he quickly refilled the reservoir.  He took the glass cylinder off of the wick. The smell of oil mixed into the air. Harry looked beyond the lens out into the darkness. There was a world of darkness counting on him to share his light.  Counting on him to be brave, to have courage.   What was it the preacher had told him when he confessed of his fear. “There is a world of darkness out there, arise and shine!  You will see and you will be radiant, filled with joy!”

Harry lit the light. Whosh!  He carefully put the cylinder back onto the wick.  He bravely walked out onto the catwalk from where he could see the light piercing the darkness and reaching out to warn the ship of the shore rocks.  In spite of the cold rain and chill of the wind, Harry found himself warm and comforted. The light was shining.  The boat was safe.   

Arise and Shine is God’s call on us.  God shines light upon us all, just as the Star of Bethlehem shined upon all humanity.  Bringing together the multitudes, bringing together the diversity that is our nation and people.  It would be so easy to bask in the warmth of that light and continue about our business as usual.

The Wisemen did no such thing. They saw the light.  They reflected it back into the world through their actions.  They couldn’t remain where they were (they had to find the Christ child).  The light caused them to worship and the light caused them to share (they brought gifts, offerings, generosity).

Church, it is too easy to be a dim wit Christian or a low watt disciple.  When we lay down on the beach of our spirituality and simply absorb all the rays of sunshine God is sending us, we are not fulfilling our calling.  God called us to be mirrors: to reflect his love, to reflect his grace, to reflect God’s light to the world in darkness.

For a mirror to do what it’s intended to do… it has to let the light shine on all of it – no dark hiding places.  It has to let the light be reflected – it doesn’t keep it for itself.  The mirror has to be willing to be a bright spot in a crowd of dark spaces.

For us as Disciples of Jesus Christ, it is very much the same.  We have to be willing for the light to shine on our own darkness.  We have to be willing to let the light be reflected.  We have to be willing to stand out in the crowd.  We have to be willing to welcome the multitudes.

We’re called to be like the Wise Men… to see God’s light, to be changed by God’s light (we can’t stay where we are), to worship and share God’s light.  Don’t be afraid of the light.  “Arise, Shine!” Isaiah says.  “God’s light is on you.  See it and be radiant!”  Amen.

“Traditions that won’t die – Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve” from Luke 2:1-20

There are some Christmas Traditions that won’t die – like going to church on Christmas Eve.  The tradition I grew up in didn’t go to church on Christmas Eve. Midnight Mass sounded too Catholic for them.  Instead, my family’s tradition was to open our gifts from ma and pa on Christmas Eve knowing on Christmas Day we would go to the extended family Christmas. The one where you got all these gifts you didn’t want from Aunts and Uncles you wouldn’t see again until the next family gathering.

The irony is the first Christmas Eve service I ever went to was in a Catholic Church.  I was at college in Danville.  Two of my good friends were Catholic, so when they invited me, I went.  The priest was very open and joyful. He didn’t care that I wasn’t Catholic.  So when the time came for me to receive communion, I went forward with everyone else.  And that’s when I encountered the wafer.

I’m not sure what brand of dissolvable cardboard the priest gave me, but it wasn’t bread.  Bread has flavor.  Bread has texture.  Bread travels down to your stomach with a sensation that is real, sensual, and gratifying.  Not so with the wafer.  It had no flavor.  It had no texture save the distinct realization by my tongue something had been placed on it with a micro-measure of weight.  And after it dissolved in my mouth, I’m not sure any remnant made it any further down the pipe.

I’m not trying to poke fun at our Catholic sisters and brothers.  I respect their understanding and practice of the Lord’s Supper.  Yet it occurs to me that many times that wafer represents my own experience in spirituality.  It lacks flavor. There are times that I can’t tell you the last time I tasted the joy of the Lord’s presence.  It lacks texture. There are long places in my own life where I don’t feel as if God is with me; quite the opposite of Emmanuel.  It leaves me hungry.

At the first church I served as pastor, I was reminded of this by a 4 year old boy named Cody.  It was an ordinary Sunday with ordinary hymns.  You might say we were going through the motions.  I’m sure it was the first Sunday of the month, because we were having communion.  Folks were coming up to the rail in groups as was tradition. They knelt and received a torn bit of bread which they were invited to dip into the cup.  But the ordinary disappeared when little Cody received his bread.

“Is that all I get?”  He had said it as any 4 year old would have said it.  Quiet enough that the entire congregation heard him.  Loud enough to embarrass his mother and father.  But what struck me was his honesty about the hunger.  He didn’t come here for wafers or crumbs.  Cody wanted the flavor, the texture, the fulfillment.  Cody wanted the feast, all that God would give him.  Cody wanted to experience God at the table.

You may be asking what does this have to do with Jesus, the Stable, the Manger, etc.  God didn’t offer us fast food solutions, but instead offered us a full multi-course feast in this babe, in this birth, in this life, in this death, and in this resurrection.  He could have been born in a palace, yet he chose a stable.  He could have had Angels announcing his coming to all humanity, yet he chose shepherds in a field.  He could have picked any town – Rome, New York, Washington DC, yet he chose Bethlehem, a Hebrew word that translates as “House of Bread.”  He could have had the best Tempurpedic, double down, plush bed for his crib, yet mother Mary laid him in a manger – fancy word for a “feeding trough” for animals.

We didn’t come here for a little snack or a bit of fast food.  We came here for the whole experience of who Jesus is.  Tonight we celebrate his coming to us.  Tonight we are invited to experience the whole of who God is in a little child laid in a manger.  Tonight we are invited to experience the whole of who God is in a candle light dinner of a little bread and a little wine.  Thank God some traditions won’t die.  Amen.

“Traditions that won’t die – shaking the gift” from Luke 1:26-55

There are some Christmas Traditions that just won’t die – like shaking the package and trying to guess what’s inside.  As a child we all did it.  We waited until our parents weren’t in the room.  We began sizing up the packages in our mind with imaginary x-ray vision, prying at what might be inside.  We took out our list and checked it twice. Checking the size and shape of each package.

And if we were really quiet, and really sneaky, and really brave – we actually touched the packages.  With the same care an antiquities professor in a library handles a rare and fragile manuscript – we would pick up those mystery gifts wrapped in colorful paper with ribbons and bows.  Quieter than our parents could ever remember us being, we would gently shake the package, and if we were lucky, we would hear something rattle or rock within giving us giddy emotion about possibilities.

Could it be that new video game that everyone wants this year?  Would it be that doll we saw in the store?  What about the Drone or new phone we asked for?  Would Christmas day find us tearing off the paper to find exactly what we wanted?  No matter how we shook it, not matter what noises came from within the wrappings, we couldn’t and wouldn’t be sure until Christmas morning.

 

 Mary must have been feeling like that after the angel left.  There are two words that when you say them or hear them will change your life forever.  “I’m pregnant.”  For some, those words come as a shock.  As in this wasn’t the plan.  Attached to them are chains like “My life is over” and “I’m not ready.”  The future is cloudy with sudden realization of responsibility, nurturing, providing, and caring for another living being.

“I’m pregnant.”  For others these words come with hopeful surprise.  Attached to them are dreams of doll houses and catching balls.  The future is a bright sunny day with endless possibilities about what might lay in store for the new family.

Like a gift wrapped under the tree, one that we weren’t aware that we might be receiving, Mary goes through a flood of these emotions.  “I’m pregnant.”  At first, she was in shock. “How can this be.  I’ve never been with a man!”  “God this isn’t the way things are done down here.”

We’ve all told God this once or twice in our lives, maybe we’ve just used other words.  “Lord, if you’ll just let it happen this way…”  “God, what I really need is…”  “Jesus Christ, why can’t anything ever go my way!”  We shake the package. We size it up in our minds.  We try to tell our parents what it should be because we have this sinking feeling that it isn’t what we wanted it to be.

I’m sure Mary instinctively put her hand to her stomach as she said those unsure words, “I am God’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.”

According to Google Maps and most commentaries, it would take a person about one week to walk from Nazareth to Jerusalem in the ancient world.  We actually don’t know where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived. Scripture only says, “Judean Highlands” which describes a lot of territory.   But it probably was around or near Jerusalem – Zechariah being a priest.  It may have even been near Bethlehem as Adam Hamilton suggests.

So put yourself in Mary’s shoes.  An angel just told you your life is ruined. “I’m pregnant.”  You run to family, but preferably not mom and dad.  Maybe go and check out what the Angel said about cousin Elizabeth.  And you’ve got 7 to 9 days walk to think this thing through.   

It’s amazing how taking a walk can change your perspective.  All the research these days says that sitting is killing us.  Sitting in chairs at our offices, sitting in lazy-boys in front of television and devices.  Our sedentary lifestyle is killing us.  And it’s not just our physical health – walking is emotionally healthy.

Mary probably thanked God for the walk.  I imagine that Mary was deep in thought the whole way to Elizabeth’s house.  I imagine her praying to God and going through the different stages of grief.  “I’m pregnant. Not, that’s impossible.  Nothing is impossible with God.”  “I’m pregnant. Why did you pick me God?  Isn’t there a princess somewhere who’s better suited?”  Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining, Acceptance.  Mary must have traveled the gambit of the wheel of emotional response with each step she took south.

Walking helps her.  Her perspective does change.  She looks at her stomach with growing anticipation.  She sizes up this gift, wondering how it will fit into her life’s dreams.  She rubs her stomach wondering who he will be?  No matter how she shakes it, no matter what feelings come from within the wrappings, she couldn’t possibly be sure until Christmas.

But that doesn’t stop her from dreaming.   After her walk she praises God “With all my heart I glorify God.”  After her walk she realizes that this burden she thought she was carrying has become a blessing, “From now on, everyone will call me blessed.”  She realizes who God is and who God’s son will be

    • A man of mercy
    • One who lifts up the lowly and pulls the powerful off their thrones
    • Feeding the hungry
    • Coming the aid of the oppressed
    • A Savior – Jesus – Emmanuel – God with us.

Mary realizes that she has been given a gift.   

No matter what is under the Christmas Tree for you this year, one thing is true.  It doesn’t matter what kind of wrapping paper is on it.  It doesn’t matter how perfect the bow is tied or how big the box is.  It doesn’t even matter what it cost for the person to give it to you.  What matters is once you’ve opened it, how will you use it?  

No matter how you shake it, once you’ve opened the gift, you’ve got to decide what you will do with it now.  Will it be put on the shelf with other ‘things’ you own but never use?  Will it be put in storage with other gifts you’ve been given that you didn’t really want to receive but can’t quite bring yourself to get rid of because “even an ugly sweater from Aunt Cathy is still a gift from Aunt Cathy.”  Or will this gift be the gift that changes your life.   

A father took his two children to the mall to do a little shopping. As they drove up, four eager eyes spotted a Mack Truck parked with a big sign on it that said, “Petting Zoo.” The father knew what was coming.  The kids jumped up in a rush and asked, “Daddy, Daddy. Can we go? Please. Please. Can we go?”

Wanting to give his children a gift, the father said “Sure,” flipping them both a quarter before walking into the department store. They bolted away, and the father felt free to take his time looking for a Christmas gift for his wife.

A petting zoo consists of a portable fence erected in the mall with about six inches of sawdust and a hundred little furry baby animals of all kinds. Kids pay their money and stay in the enclosure enraptured with the squirmy little critters while their moms and dads shop.

A few minutes later, the father turned around and saw his little girl walking along behind him. He was shocked to see she preferred the department store to the petting zoo. Then he saw that she was crying.  He bent down and asked her what was wrong.

She looked up at him with sad brown eyes and said, “Well, Daddy, it cost fifty cents. So, I gave my brother my quarter.  It was an early Christmas gift for him.”

Together, the father and his daughter walked over to the Petting Zoo and watched her brother enjoy the gift she’d given.  The father watched as they stood there.  There was another two quarters burning a hole in his pocket that he was about to give her.  But as he watched his daughter, something changed.  The sadness disappeared.  The burden was lifted and became a blessing.  The gift she had given became a gift of joy for her.

She had opened an unexpected gift.  Without sizing it up beforehand, no shaking it, no guessing at what it could be.  She had simply tore open the gift of love and shared it with her brother, and in the sharing she had been the one who was blessed. 

Church, we’ve been given a gift.  “We’re pregnant.  We’re pregnant with baby Jesus.”  This unexpected gift has shocked us, surprised us, and got us wondering.  It doesn’t matter what kind of wrapping paper is on it.  It doesn’t matter how perfect the bow is tied or how big the box is.  It doesn’t even matter what it cost for God to give it to us.  We’ve been shaking it, guessing at what it might be, dreaming about what could be.  

Christmas is coming.  Once we’ve opened this gift, how will we experience Jesus? How will we share Jesus?  After all, that’s all that really matters anyway.

“Traditions that won’t die – Bicycles, BB Guns, and Stockings” from Matthew 1:18-25

There are some Christmas traditions that just won’t die – like Bicycles, BB guns, and Stockings.  We know what we want.  My mother always wanted a Christmas with everyone home, everyone happy, and no one arguing. The Norman Rockwell painting of a family gathered around the tree in absolute joy.  My father always wanted scratch off tickets that would win him enough to pay for the next ten years of Christmas gifts. That and a Christmas ham.  But neither was to happen.  Somehow my sister, brother, and I would always find something to argue about.  Someone (probably an uncle or an aunt) would call to let us know that they wouldn’t be coming for the family Christmas because they just couldn’t stand to be in the same room with so and so who had said something inappropriate last year after one to many.  Poor dad would have to suffer through getting another handkerchief or a pair of socks.  But he’d be happy because there would be ham.

Christmas is rarely what we want it to be.   We want it to be quiet and quaint, just our close friends and family; and yet it always seems to grow out of control like some frat party at college.  We want it to be peaceful like snowflakes falling from the sky, instead of the hectic pace of conflicting schedules, long lines, and exhausted feet.  And yes, we want snow. And just on Christmas day, so no one has to drive in it or get stuck sleeping on the couch at our house.  We want it to be like some Christmas we’re sure happened once upon a time and yet hasn’t seemed to ever be.

 

Christmas is rarely what we want it to be.  But don’t worry.  Calm down.  The first Christmas was that way, too.  Joseph and Mary were like any other couple in love.  They looked at one another with that wellspring of hope in their hearts.  They had plans for the future.  He’d continue expanding his small business of carpentry.  She’d probably picked out pots and fabrics for the home.  Their families were excited and expecting great things.  The wedding would be wonderful – two honorable families coming together in the union of this woman and this man.  And of course there were whispers about the little ones that would soon be additions to their families heritage, tradition, and honor.

But this was not to be.

Christmas was not what Joseph and Mary wanted it to be.  It came too soon.   Things were different in the ancient world.  Unlike today, a woman was only worth her womb.  She was worthy as a virgin before marriage.  She was worthy as a producer of children in marriage.  She was called to add honor to her husband.

I’m thankful that we’ve moved beyond this, but that was the situation for Mary.  Carrying the Son of God meant that she would lose worth in her families eyes.  Carrying Jesus meant that her virtue was now called into question.  Carrying Emmanuel meant that the world looked at her with disdain.

Christmas was not what Joseph and Mary wanted it to be.  It came too soon.   Things were different in the ancient world.  You couldn’t just throw the ring on the ground and walk away from an engagement.  To break off the engagement meant that Joseph was breaking a covenant, a promise, and a contract. Not only would people whisper about Mary, they would ask what was wrong with Joseph.  As the offended party, Joseph was supposed to make a big deal of this, he had the right to publicly humiliate Mary and her family. In fact that was what the law called for him to do.

Matthew describes Joseph and a “righteous” or “just” or “fair” man.  He doesn’t want to ruin Mary and her family.  He doesn’t want this to be a public affair.  He wants this all to be over quickly and quietly.

Christmas was not what Joseph and Mary wanted it to be.  Christmas is rarely what we want it to be.  We want a BB gun, “you’ll shoot your eye out!”  We want a bicycle we don’t know how to ride.  We want a happy family, someone is going to be on bad terms with someone. After all this is football season.  We want, but God provides what we need instead.

When I was a kid, my Christmas was always half of what I wanted and half of what I needed.  I knew immediately what the difference would be.  The packages fell into two categories:  hard and soft.  The hard ones were toys. The soft ones were clothing.  Once or twice my mom and dad fooled me by putting them in boxes, but this ‘feeling’ technique rarely failed me.   

God gives us what we need at Christmas, not just what we want.  There was a young wife and mother of two children whose husband was in the Air Force during one of the nation’s military conflicts. As Christmas approached, she gathered her children and headed for her parents’ home for the Christmas celebration. She arrived to find her parents’ home gaily decorated. The tree was glistening with lights and the presents were crammed beneath it. And, although her husband could not be present, it promised to be a happy time together.

 Then, on Christmas Eve, came the news that her husband had been killed in combat, and the woman was devastated. While she was upstairs crying in her room, her parents, who now felt that the decorations were suddenly inappropriate, began to take them down. The lights were unplugged and the gifts put in a closet. Later, when the new widow came down the stairs, she saw the decorations gone and the tree darkened. “Where is everything?” she asked. When her father explained, the young woman, with a wisdom beyond her years, said, “No. Bring them back! Christmas was made for such times as these.”  God touching our soul.

 Christmas is rarely what we want it to be.  But what if we let it be that way.  In a dream, God tells Joseph not to worry, but to marry Mary anyway.  With an angel, God tells Mary not to be afraid, but to be blessed.  What if this year we didn’t worry so much about getting Christmas perfect but allowed the imperfections to become blessings?  What if this year we loved one another in the same light that God loves each of us?  This year, let’s just be ourselves and let each other be who we are.

Christmas is rarely what we want it to be.  But don’t worry.  Calm down.  Emmanuel is the answer.  God IS with us.  Just because the bow on that present isn’t perfectly symmetrical doesn’t mean the child opening it won’t be surprised and blessed.  Just because the baby came before the marriage doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love you.  Just because you have the right to hurt someone doesn’t mean you should.  Just because you find yourself in a dark place, a blue Christmas, a winter wonderland of shadows, anger, and grief – doesn’t mean you are cursed.   

God loves you.  God is with you.  God made a special trip one time just to be with you.  It wasn’t necessarily the perfect plan:  an unwed mother, a father worried about public opinion, a backwater state in the midst of an oppressive empire; but it worked out.

 Christmas is rarely what we want it to be.  The first one definitely wasn’t what we’d think it should be.  But maybe that’s a part of the good news:  God loves us anyway.  God is with us, anyway.  God is calling us to be with one another and love one another, anyway.

 In Calcutta, India, outside of Shishu Bhavan, there hangs a sign that says:

People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered,

LOVE THEM ANYWAY

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives,

DO GOOD ANYWAY

If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies,

SUCCEED ANYWAY

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow,

DO GOOD ANYWAY

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable,

BE HONEST AND FRANK ANYWAY

What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight,

BUILD ANYWAY

People really need help but may attack you if you help them,

HELP PEOPLE ANYWAY

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth,

GIVE THE WORLD THE BEST YOU’VE GOT ANYWAY.

God loves you in spite of you.  This Christmas, in spite of family, friends, schedules, anxiety, and grief: love.  Christmas is messy.  Love the mess anyway.

“Traditions that won’t die – Christmas Trees” from Luke 1:76-80

There are some traditions that just won’t die – like decorating the Christmas Tree.  Some of my favorite Christmas memories revolve around the Christmas tree.  I’d watch impatiently as my father cussed and fussed with the artificial tree we had growing up. He’d be kneeling on the floor in front of the beaten up box that still had the Sears Roebucks sticker on the side.  He looked like he was paying homage to a giant green monster that was about to devour him in one colossal bite.  In the dim light he’d look for colors that had long worn off on the ends of branches, trying to decipher them like an archaeologist staring at the Rosetta stone. Reds and oranges looked like twins as did blacks and grays.

Meanwhile, mom would be sitting in the couch entrapped by miles of lights. She’d go light by light checking to make each strand work and blink at just the right rhythm.  Replacing bulbs and fuses in monotonous fashion.  She would giggle at my father’s frustration, humming songs about Rudolph, St. Nick, and Frosty.  Finally, when the tree was up and all the lights were on it. Mom would look at it once more.  She’d go up to each bubble light and encourage it with a tap.  She’d bend branches and add green fluffs to places where time had taken toll.  Then she’d turn my sister and I loose.

To say that we decorated the tree was to say that two midgets had the ability to slam dunk on the basketball court.  We decorated the tree from about midway down.  We were little after all.  With Burl Ives singing about mistletoe kisses in the background, we decorated the tree with those shiny balls (breaking two or three in the process).  We decorated the tree with arts and crafts that we had made at school and at church. Mom would smile when we hung our clothespin reindeer, our paper Santa with cotton ball beards, and of course our latest arts and crafts projects from school.  Then she’d politely ask, “Do we have to put your clay Freddie Kruegar on the Christmas tree?” Yes, even though I had never seen the movies, I had made a clay man with a claw for a hand and painted him bright bloody red.  “Mom, Freddie needs Christmas too!”

I never understood why ma and pa would let us decorate the tree.  She knew we were going to break some of the ornaments.  She knew we couldn’t reach all the way to the top.  After Sis and I went to bed we knew she was going to re-decorate the tree to her specifications.  And yet, she invited us to participate in this sacred moment, creating memories and experiencing love.

Christmas Trees are so much a part of our Christmas these days.  It’s no surprise I think that Christmas trees weren’t always a part of the Christmas holiday.  While people have been gathering around trees and decorating them for centuries, the first record of a decorated Christmas tree is not in Bethlehem. It happened in Riga, Latvia, in 1510.

Christmas Trees give life.  An acre of Christmas Trees provides enough oxygen for 18 people daily.

Christmas trees are a part of our nation’s story.  Christmas trees have been a part of the American Experience for a long time. In 1856, President Franklin Pierce was the first to place a Christmas Tree on the White House Lawn.  This tradition has been carried out since then with the exception of Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, who banned the National Christmas tree for religious and environmental reasons.

Christmas trees are a part of our faith story.  I can still remember sitting in the dark with my mother, watching the bubble lights glow and the twinkling reflections.  In the darkness, in the waiting, in the cold and bitter winter, Christmas trees remind us of God’s eternal love and the Light of Christ’s birth.  As Luke states, “God’s deep compassion, the dawn of heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.”

Times are dark.  Most of the trees have lost their leaves.  The world of nature is stark with dying colors – Fall’s parade of reds, yellows, and orange have given to bland browns.  Our community weeps as Suntrust bank closes down in town.  Life in winter struggles and slows down.  Sometimes the cold infects our hearts and our behaviors reflect selfish desires and sinful intent rather than generous giving or self-sacrifice.

Into this picture, Luke’s gospel introduces John  the Baptizer.  His Father, Zechariah, preaches in song about his life.  (Remember Zechariah, the old guy whose old wife suddenly has a baby?)  Now as a proud father, he preaches in song about his Son, John.  “You child will be called a prophet of the most high, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.”  For Zechariah, John’s message is one of hope, love, peace, and joy.  John brings a message that the light is coming.  John brings a message that forgiveness is coming.  John opens the gate to the way, the truth, and the life in Christ Jesus.  In this Gospel he wears his faith for all the world to see, and it is more than long hair and camel skin!

In a winter season, John is the Christmas Tree getting decorated for Christ’s birth.  He reminds us of God’s eternal love.  He shows us the way to Christ’s light being born in the darkness.  What’s more is that we are called to be like John.

We are called to be the Christmas Trees in the world today.  Like John, we are to remind the world that there is still life in these branches of green.  Like John, we are to point to the Christ light being born in the darkness.  Like John, we are called to come and prepare the way. Like my mother and father, God is trusting us with decorating the tree.

I never understood why ma and pa would let us decorate the tree.  She knew we were going to break some of the ornaments.  She knew we couldn’t reach all the way to the top.  After Sis and I went to bed we knew she was going to re-decorate the tree to her specifications.  And yet, she invited us to participate in this sacred moment, creating memories and experiencing love.

I don’t understand why God would trust us with sharing the news about Jesus.  God knows we’re going to break some of the commandments and be called hypocrites.  God knows we can’t reach heaven on our own let alone bring God’s kingdom here through our efforts.  After we’ve made a mess and failed, God is going to have to rework all the bad to recreate this world new, resurrected, reformed.  And yet, the Lord invites us to participate here, at this table, in this sacred moment, remembering, observing, creating new and experiencing love.  

There are some traditions that won’t die.  God’s love is one of them.

“Traditions that won’t die – Shopping for the perfect Gift” from John 1:1-14

There are some traditions that won’t die. If you were like most Americans – you’ve been searching for the perfect gift. Maybe you started your search this week: gravy still dripping down your chin, turkey still digesting in your stomach as you leapt through crowds and dodged quicker than any running back to get to that last one, limited time, Black Friday sale.

Maybe you’re more savvy than that…Back when Halloween costumes and Christmas Trees came out together, you saw the signs of the times.  You read between the lines when the minions came knocking at your door saying “Trick or Treat.”  You knew what they were really saying was “Trick or Treat – only 55 days left till Christmas – buy me a gift!”

Whether you do it online or in person, whether you prepare all year for it or let it sneak up on you with a bite of mistletoe – Brace yourself – Christmas is coming.  If you are like most – you’ve begun searching for the perfect gift for that person who is impossible to shop for.

There are some traditions that won’t die – and finding the perfect gift is one of them.  We all know what it’s not.  It’s not the ugly sweater from Aunt Cathy.  It’s not the yellow polka dotted suspenders I sent my dad this year.  Nor is it the gift basket of soaps and bathing oils – what are your relatives trying to say by giving you things to make you smell better?

And we know how to start fights about gifts.  Recently on Facebook a man posted this:

One year, I decided to buy my mother-in-law a cemetery plot as a Christmas gift. The next year I didn’t buy her a gift.  When she asked me why, I replied, “Well, you still haven’t used the gift I bought you last year!”  And that’s how the fight started.

In trying to find the perfect gift we drown in consumerism and hunger for meaning.  When we purchase more and find ourselves emptier than our wallets.  When we give till it hurts only to find the hurt is credit card debt.  When we realize we’re worried about schedules, menus, and forget to realize with the Grinch that Christmas is something that can’t be bought after all.

Finding the perfect gift is a lot like trying to decide which of the Seven Wonders of the World is the most wonderful.  A teacher assigned a class to write down a list of what they thought were the current Seven Wonders of the World.  Most of the students came back the pretty much the same list:

    • Egypt’s pyramids
    • Taj Mahal
    • The Grand Canyon
    • Panama Canal
    • Empire State Building
    • Peter’s Basilica
    • The Great Wall of China

One little girl had a difficult time with the assignment.  The teacher asked her, “are you having trouble with the assignment.”  “Yes,” she promptly said, “there are so many that it is hard to choose which should be number one.”  The teacher said, “Well, why don’t you share your list with the class and we’ll help you decide.”

“I think the Seven Wonders of the World are:

    • To see
    • To hear
    • To touch
    • To taste
    • To feel
    • To laugh
    • And to love.

The perfect gift is not made, manufactured, sold, and shipped through Amazon.com.  The perfect gift is not something you can charge on your credit card, save up for through your piggy bank, or earn through hard work.  If you are like most people – you are searching for the perfect gift.  

The perfect gift is what we look for during the Advent Season.  It was there in the very first moment of creation.  “In the Beginning was the Word.”  It wasn’t bought or sold, but instead was given freely as a self-sacrifice.  “The Word was with God and the Word was God.”  It was the perfect gift for us in our darkest hour.  “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish it.”

The perfect gift we long for, the perfect gift we search for, the perfect gift we need more than ever this year – is Jesus.  Emmanuel.  God with us.  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

 This time of year the days grow short and it seems both in nature and in our spirits that the darkness is trying to overcome the light.  Evil is trying to beat goodness.  Commercialism, not secularism, is trying to kill Christmas.  

Perhaps that is why we celebrate Advent during this time of year.  To remember our need.  To remember his love.  To remember God’s gift.

Perhaps that is why we need candles lit in front of us each Sunday.  To give us light in dark times, to give us hope in the midst of grief and despair. for hope that the light of day will end night.

Funny thing about this gift God gives.  We have to be ready to receive it.   Advent calls us to get ready for Christ’s coming.  Be ready.  We have to open the gift.  Be ready to have our debt of sin paid in full. Be ready Jesus to shape and change our lives. Be ready to experience an amazing grace and a wonderful presence. Be ready to receive the perfect gift.

 A young man was getting ready to graduate from college. For many months he had admired a beautiful sports car in a dealer’s showroom, and knowing his father could well afford it, he told him that was all he wanted.

As Graduation Day approached, the young man awaited signs that his father had purchased the car. Finally, on the morning of his graduation, his father called him into his private study told him how proud he was to have such a fine son, and how much he loved him. He handed him a beautifully wrapped gift box.  Curious, but somewhat disappointed, the young man opened the box and found a lovely, leather-bound Bible, with his name embossed in gold. Angrily, he raised his voice to his father and said, “With all your money and power you give me a Bible?  I wanted a car!” He stormed out of the house, leaving the Bible behind.

Many years passed and the young man was very successful in business. He had a beautiful home and wonderful family, but realized his father was very old. He thought perhaps he should go to him. He had not seen him since that graduation day. But before he could make arrangements, he received a telegram telling him his father had passed away, and willed all of his possessions to him. He needed to come home immediately to take care of things.

When he arrived at his father’s house, sadness and regret filled his heart. He began to search through his father’s important documents and saw the Bible, new, just as he had left it years ago. With tears, he opened the Bible and began to turn the pages. His father had carefully underlined a verse,

Matt 7:11-  “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him”

As he read those words, a car key dropped from the back of the Bible. It had a tag with the dealer’s name, the same dealer who had the sports car he had desired. On the tag was the date of his graduation, and the words…PAID IN FULL.

There are some traditions that won’t die.  Advent is one of them.  This Advent Season, let’s get ready to receive the perfect gift.