Saturday, December 24, 2011

One Holy Night - extended play

(I used the title "One Holy Night" based on the mini-ad campaign our congregations used to share our joint services with the community - - Two Churches, One Holy Night. I'd really called it "Birth Stories," though, if I could change the bulletin and if I cared. Not much of a sermon title person.)

Luke 2:1-20

Every birth has a story. Every single amazing, unique, miraculous or heartbreaking, birth has a story. A story that probably gets told again and again of how a child was born one freezing winter night when Mom and Dad almost didn’t make it to the hospital because the roads were so bad. A story where things were touch and go for a while, but in the end it all turned out OK. The same story that didn’t end quite the same. A story of how a child was born in the hearts of two parents due to the selfless of another mother who gave life in more than one way. A story of hours and hours of walking and wondering and waiting and worrying, that finally comes to fruition in a wiggling wonderful newborn child. Every birth has a story. And tonight we have come together to remember one such story.

There is no such thing as a mundane birth, as I learned more than once, but especially when the birthing class we took before our third baby was born met for a reunion. With little ones in arms, we told our stories to one another, often starting with, “Well, it wasn’t too crazy” but ending with the drama of a lifetime. Literally. There were stories of fast drives and long waits. Scary heartbeats and tired mommas. But more than anything there were stories of people - - first time moms and dads, over-zealous grandparents, attentive doulas, excited siblings, reassuring doctors, stern nurses, compassionate complete strangers. The medicine gave the facts of the birth, but the people made the stories.

The same is true of the birth that brings us here to worship tonight. The people involved makes the story. The account in tonight’s gospel began with the Emperor of the occupying nation. His mention sets the scene in a somber way. The people of Israel were not in charge of themselves. They were not in control of their own land. A Caesar from another land was calling the shots, and seemed to have control over all the world.
Yet if we are not new to this birth story, we know that it began long before the census was demanded. You could say it started hundreds and thousands of years ago with patriarchs and matriarchs, judges, kings and queens, and prophets, but none of us have the time tonight to hear all of THOSE stories. But still, the birth story goes back a little further than just Augustus and his need to control the world.

In Luke it goes back to and elderly priest and his wife, righteous and living blameless before God, serving in the temple and living if not content at least resigned to the understanding that that their age they apparently were never going to be parents. Highly respected in their community, trusted with the important work in the temple, then suddenly blessed with a miraculous child, the messenger who was born to prepare the people for the Messiah.
Then there’s the heavenly being, Gabriel, who scares the voice out of Zechariah and makes an unbelievable announcement to a trusting and faithful Mary. Confident of his messages that confused their recipients, with compassion he offered signs to confirm their truth. Angelic and authoritative, he was the first to deliver the good news to Zechariah his and Elizabeth’s prayers had finally been answered more fully than he could have imagined. And to Mary, not her prayers, but God’s will would be accomplished through her. He was the one she would tell about forever who was with her in her moment of realization. She would bring forth life, the life, that life that was the light of all people.

Joseph doesn’t get mentioned until the actual birth narrative gets going. His presence is the connection to family of David. It’s minimal, but it provides a stability that is needed in any birth story. I can imagine his grumbling and frustration at the thought of taking his very pregnant companion all the way to Bethlehem from their hometown of Nazareth. His protective annoyance at the lack of space when they get to town and realize her time is near.
And then there are the shepherds in the field. Not the most highly respected profession in the area, but certainly a necessary one. The shepherds were in the fields literally minding their own business when suddenly they are dragged in this cosmic story by a heavenly host of screaming angels. Rough and tough, dirty and smelly, on the opposite end of the spiritual and societal spectrum from Zechariah and Elizabeth who started this whole birth story, the shepherds fulfilled the role of adoring relatives, coming as soon as the birth was announced to adore the child, filled with awe and wonder. And like the proud grandparents and siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins and godparents, they told everyone they met about the baby they saw.

The birth story of Jesus is as full of family and acquaintances, strangers and interlopers as any birth story we could tell, but all of them, each of them has an important part in the most important birth story the world has ever heard, the birth of God into creation, the in-breaking, the incarnation of God in the world. And look at all the people who were used to make it happen, all the different kinds of people God used to bring love into the world and share love with others. From Mary and Joseph, to Zechariah and Elizabeth, to angels and shepherds - - unwed parents to a priest in a temple, heavenly messengers to earthy workers, everyone had a part in this amazing story of God’s gift of love, God’s act of love in coming to the earth as one of us. These diverse and varied people, as diverse and varied as each of us who have gathered to worship tonight all over the earth, had a part in bearing God’s love in Christ Jesus into the world.

Earlier on I said that we were here tonight, on this one holy night, to remember a birth story. It’s true in one sense, but in another it’s not true enough. We are here to do more than remember the story of Jesus’ birth. We’re here to do more than retell the events, to sing songs, even more than share in a holy meal and light candles as symbols of the light of Christ that shines in the darkness.

We are here to find our place in this birth story that took place a couple thousand years ago and takes place again and again even now. We are the people in the story of Jesus’ birth into our world. We are the men, women, and children who are receiving unbelievable calls from God to participate in God’s love in our schools, in our community, in our workplaces, and in our families. We are the Zechariahs and Elizabeths in places of honor and respect who will carry unexpected blessings. We are the shepherds and the innkeepers with little to offer, but ourselves and our words. We are the Marys and Josephs, chosen to navigate treacherous roads to make sure the inexplicable inbreaking of God’s presence takes place exactly where God wants it to, in the middle of a crowded, bustling world. We are Lutherans and Presbyterians from Mt. Zion and First Presbyterian, we are family members and visitors from churches of all flavors, and probably even some whose church participation has dwindled over time. But tonight we are here, this one holy night we have gathered, and tonight we are part of the birth story. We have been called into the story of Jesus who was born to continue God’s story of grace and truth and love, God’s promise of blessing and salvation and redemption. We have been called into the story of Christ who is born into our hearts and our lives, and at the same time we are being called out of the shadows and giving Christ’s light to carry into the world.
This birth story unites us. This birth story is one common thread in our lives and in our faith. It has drawn us together so that even if we gather few other times together to worship, each us felt the need, the importance to gather together tonight. We can’t let the story stop here. We can’t let the gospel end at the manger, because the good news of God who came to live among creation did end there. This birth story, this Christmas story we have begun on this one holy night, must continue on so that our families and friends, our community and our culture will know that Christ is born! God’s love is here to stay. With our united witness, the actions of our lives, and even our words, if necessary, may we share with others what the Lord has made known to us!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

We Made It!

A sermon for David and Andrea's wedding (and a picture from the iPad toting pastor)

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
Proverbs 3:1-6
Song of Solomon 8:6-7

Whew! We made it. "We" I like how I just inserted myself right in there. It's your wedding. You made it, so right here, right now just take a moment to breathe, to calm down, to take it all in. You made. We made it. We all made it.

That is actually true. This wedding, any wedding, is a communal event and communal effort. That's kind of the point of the whole wedding. It's the reason you plan and organize and invite and set up menus and and make favors and MOST importantly it's why we gather in a church for worship. This wedding, any wedding, isn't something you want to tuck away in a courthouse with just a couple of people witnessing. It's an occasion on which we all want to celebrate, to give thanks to God for the gift of the love David and Andrea share, to pray together for their relationship and the life they begin together today, to promise our support through the smooth times and the rough. Really, in some way, every person in this room and even many who are absent, made it. We made it to this day, this worship, this blessing. We made it.

One way many of us try to participate in this communal event is with advice. Right? David, Andrea, I won't ask you to rat anyone out, mostly because I don't want to hear my own name listed, but tell me, did you get ANY advice as you were preparing not just for this day, but for your marriage? Did anyone offer you their nuggets of wisdom about planning a wedding, combining your daily lives, living together in plenty and want, joy and sorrow, and all the rest? Yeah. I thought so. If there's anything the community is good at before a marriage begins, it's offering advice.

Well, at the risk of looking like one more person doing just that, I'd like for us to listen for not more human advice, but divine wisdom and promises and blessings as we look to the Scriptures of our faith that we just heard.

In a number of ways the passages we heard lifted up the blessing of interdependence you will experience in even deeper ways once you are married. It's interesting to me how as children and teenagers we struggled so hard for our INDEPENDENCE, but once we met reality face-to-face, once we experienced the complexities the independence of adulthood brings, we suddenly realize how it's not all it's cracked up to be. Independence makes life hard, as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes points out. A man who seeks to do it all himself has no one to help him up when he falls. A woman who shuts herself off from others can't feel the warmth of friendship and love when cold and lonely times set it.

The loyalty and faithfulness spoken of in Proverbs are keys to this interdependence. The promises you will make to stick with each other through thick and thin, turning to no others but each other will strengthen your love as it grows into the unquenchable flame of Solomon's song. Looking to the loyalty and faithfulness of God for each of us as our example and inspiration, and relying on the same for strength and forgiveness when the inevitable trials come into your human relationship, will guide the journey of your life together, making your path straight.

An important piece of this interdependence, of course, is the presence of God in your life and your love. The Teacher ended the description of blessed relationships with what I like to call divine math. David, maybe you can make sense of it with all your programming and computer stuff, but maybe, just maybe it's beyond even your understanding. After speaking about how two keep each other warm, help each stand after a fall, protect each other in times of struggle, suddenly the promise refers to a cord of three strands.

Trust in the Lord with all our heart. Do not rely on your own insight. Let God's will and God's love and God's grace become so intertwined with your own that the cord of your marriage can never be broken, that the flame of your love will never extinguish, that your path together will be straight.

May God bless you as you begin your marriage this day.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Comfort and Camel Hair

Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8

I was extremely grateful when Shelley popped in my office a couple of weeks ago to recommend that our congregation use some Advent material that she had found. I hope you have found it in the weekly e-mails, and you’ll see it in the newsletter that is available in the mailboxes this morning. There is a series of devotions for each week of Advent centered on Scripture each week. The Scripture is the same we are reading in worship and using at our candle lighting. The artwork for the materials is what appears at the start of our worship. The materials tie everything together in worship and at home, making our Advent season of waiting and preparation more than beautiful decorations in the sanctuary.

This morning the theme from the Advent materials and the words to our first hymn (one of my FAVORITE Advent hymns) was taken straight from the prophecy of Isaiah that we just heard. “Comfort, O comfort my people.”

“Comfort” was the promise of God to the people of Jerusalem and Judah, a promise that was actually surprising in its original context. Jerusalem and Judah are not exactly sympathetic characters throughout the prophecy of Isaiah. Personified here and earlier, the city and the nation are again and again recipients of the judgment of God, victims of the captivity of Babylon because again and again their disobedience to God left them vulnerable to outside forces. They didn’t heed God’s call, so God allowed what one parenting strategy calls “natural consequences” to occur. The enemy comes in, destroys the nation, and sends her people into exile.

Retributive justice. It was not only the going theory of criminal justice of the day; it was the going theology of the day. You get what you ask for and then maybe you get some more to make sure you never do it again. Punishment. Anger. Payback. What goes around comes around, but in a divine manner.

But here comes Isaiah speaking for God, “Comfort, O comfort my people.” In the face of cultures and theologies that operate on methods of retributive justice, a word of comfort spoken by God is completely unexpected, completely unheard of, completely gracious. A word of comfort spoken in a season that seems hopeless, seems empty, seems overwhelmed by things going from bad to worse. A word of comfort spoken to people who so desperately need it, but who can’t promise to always deserve it. “The grass withers, the flower fades…surely the people are grass.”

Comfort, comfort is a promise of the season of Advent. Comfort, God promises to people who sit in darkness. Comfort, God promises to those who are overwhelmed by bills. Comfort, God promises to those who grieve. Comfort, God promises to those who are lonely. Comfort, God promises to those who are imprisoned by their actions, their attitudes, their anger. Comfort, God promises to those who are so far over their heads they can’t even imagine a way out. Comfort, O comfort, God promises to bring on a highway cut straight through the wilderness of despair. Comfort and tenderness and gentleness. Grace…

And there’s this voice that also comes crying. Just like Isaiah said a voice would cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” There’s the other voice that comes crying out in the wilderness the voice of John the Baptist. When Mark begins his gospel he doesn’t have time for a narrative of Jesus’ birth. Mark is writing quickly, the earliest gospel after Jesus’ resurrection. He is getting the story down on paper as soon as he can after he heard it, and for WHATEVER reason, he doesn’t have time for a story of angels appearing to Mary and Joseph, shepherds in a field, or wise men from the east. He has to get to the meat of what’s going on, and the only preparation he offers to this story of good news that he has to tell, is the preparation of John the Baptist, a man who exudes feelings of anything BUT comfort.

His place of work is the Judean countryside. He doesn’t walk from city to city, town to town, or village to village. He wanders around in the wilderness where resources are scarce and comforts even scarcer. He wears clothes made of camel hair. My experience with camels is limited, but what I can tell you is this. If you find yourself riding a camel in the Israeli desert, make sure there is a saddle or blanket. That hair is dry, and prickly, and itchy. It is NOT good shirt material. He eats the bugs he finds in grass – locust, the bugs of the Egyptian plagues. Comfort is not his lifestyle, and really, as much as we want to hear it, comfort is not his message.

“Repent!” he cries out in the wilderness. “Repent!” he calls to those who are waiting for a savior, waiting for the Lord. “Repent, turn around, change your ways,” he calls to us so that we will be ready for Jesus.

This is about that time in my family’s preparations for the OTHER part of our Christmas celebration that we start to make our lists and check them once, twice, three or four times. Have we put up whatever decorations will make it up this year? Have we baked whatever we can in advance? Have we taken a family photo, bought cards, even thought about writing a letter (knowing that for the most part this section of the list will never actually get completed)? Have we bought presents for the kids, parents, nieces and nephews? What has been done to prepare us for the day that that is coming and what is left still to be done?

Hearing the ministry of John the Baptist in Mark’s gospel, really HEARING it and taking it to heart, forces us to check in on our other preparations for the coming of Christmas, the coming and re-coming of Jesus our Christ in our lives. What is missing in our relationship with God? What commitments and disciplines haven’t we made or have we let slide? Is prayer a part of our daily lives or is it something we just do when we gather on Sunday? Is serving others something we make time for not just at Christmas when the needs of the world are ringing in front of our faces at the entrance to every store in town? Are Scriptures more than just a tag line on the beautiful cards we selected or are they are part of our family’s conversations?

Are there too many other things in our lives, crowding out the necessary time and attention a REAL relationship with God requires? Is too much time spend clicking on the phone or computer, too little spent in study and prayer? Is too much energy given to attending to our own comforts, too little lifting up others who can’t even worry about comfort when they’re just worrying about survival? Is too much money being spent on extravagant gifts, too little spent making a faith statement about the causes of Jesus’ kingdom - - the poor, the outcast, those treated without grace and mercy?

“Repent!” John’s baptism proclaimed. Turn around, turn away, come back in the other direction. “Repent!” his preparation declared. Come out of the bustle of the city and town that you know into the blessed wilderness of life with Christ. Life that is unknown. Life that is dangerous. Life that is lacking the creature comforts and luxuries, but life that is dripping with the Spirit and presence of God. “Repent!”

Comfort! and Repent!

They seem like contradictory messages leaving us wondering how exactly we are to approach this season of Advent. The answer is one we probably each need to discover for ourselves. The answer is that our God has the grace and the mercy to come to us with both messages knowing that depending on where we are in our lives we may need either one or both. This may be a year where you are feeling the exile. This may be a year when you feel isolated, cast out, cast aside. This may be a year when the Lord’s presence has felt so far it feels more like the Lord’s absence and you are craving it to return and return soon. And to you, the prophet Isaiah says “’Comfort, O comfort my people,’ says your God…. The glory of the LORD shall be revealed…. Here is your God!”

Or this year may be another year for you. It maybe be the other side of the same coin, the reason John the Baptist quotes from this same passage in Isaiah, but in a different way. This may be a year when you are feeling a bit too comfortable. This maybe a year when things have been going too smoothly. This may be a year when the focus has been inside all the time, not outward to God and God’s kingdom and purposes in the world. This may be a year when the direction has been moving away from the divine, away from the Word, away from Christ who comes to guide our lives, save us from ourselves, send us out in his name. For us, the prophet John proclaims repentance, another direction, a time to turn to God, and for the very same reason, “The one who is more powerful…is coming….” Jesus is coming. Jesus is near.

Prepare the way this Advent. The God of comfort and the God of new beginnings is coming in Jesus. Prepare your way for the Lord.