“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.

Call to Worship for Baptism of Our Lord 2017

We are marked by sin from birth.

Just as greedy and dirty as a clump of sod.

We are marked by sin in life.

Just as selfish and muddy as a worm.

But something has changed, someone changed…

God loved us.  God changed us.

God’s love is a free gift to us, always and forever.

Wash us, Free us, Change us!

We are marked as God’s beloved.

We have done nothing to earn this!

We are marked as God’s people.

We will live as God’s disciples!

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.

We are Broken

Lord in your mercy hear us as we gather in worship:

We are broken.

Our connection with you shattered by neglect.

We are broken.

Our relationships with one another stained by guilt and power.

We are broken.

Our society systematically abusing and using the least and the helpless.

We are broken.

Our ears deaf to cries.  Our eyes blind to tears.  Our hands immobile to serve.

We are broken, but we are not hopeless.

Lord, heal us from the inside out.

Heal our souls that we might begin the work of making the world whole.

“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.

Advent Candle Readings (intended for a single service)

Advent Candle Readings

Note:  I’ll be using these at my Midnight Mass service for 2016.  They could be used in separate services, however, for future years.  Please feel free to edit the places of conflict mentioned under the Candle of Peace.  

 

We light this candle in hope.

Hope for salvation from apathy and hatred.

Hope for change in our hearts and minds.

Hope for holding hands instead of holding wounds.

Hope to warm us in the dark of night.

 

We light this candle for peace.

Peace for hearts shell-shocked with grief.

Peace for places like Aleppo, Mosel, and Yemen.

Peace for Police and Protester.

Peace to shine in the dark of night.

 

We light this candle for joy.

Joy for a family finding a place for the birth.

Joy for a baby born in a stable.

Joy for shepherds sharing good news.

Joy to comfort in the dark of night.

 

We light this candle in love.

Love for Emmanuel, God with us.

Love for Jesus, Savior born this night.

Love from God; Love come down.

Love to bring light in the dark of night.

 

 

 

Light this candle for Christ.

Christ, the Child who gives us Hope.

Christ, the Promised Prince of Peace.

Christ to whom the Angels sing – “Joy unspeakable!”

Christ, God’s Love.  Emmanuel.  God with us.

Jesus, Love divine that came down from heaven.

Jesus, Joy that awakens each heart this night.

Jesus, Peace to quell the fears and wars of humanity.

Jesus, Hope in this darkness.

God lights this Candle for you and me.

God lights this Candle giving us the best gift possible.

God lights this candle to comfort us in the warmth of hope and joy.

God lights this candle to shine peace and guide us to love in the dark of night.

God light this Candle for Christmas, and may its flame never extinguish.

Amen.

 

(CC) 2016.  Worship’s Wake, Nathan Decker

“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.

Litany for Passing the Peace

When we pray…

Our heads our bowed.

When we praise…

Our hands are held high!

And when we grieve…

Our eyes break in tears.

Worship is action.  Belief practiced.  Vision lived out.

When we see injustice…

We raise our voices.

When we see need…

We rush with aid.

And when we are broken, when we have broken…

Covenant.  Promise.  Love.

God sends peace.

“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.”

Will we share the peace God has sent?

Will we heal the broken, mend the relationships?

<silence>

The peace of Christ be with you.  And also with you.

(at this point the congregation is encouraged to share the peace using the line above)

“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.

Reflection and Resources for Worshiping God. Please feel free to use the resources in worship. I only ask that you give credit.