Month: December 2016

Love Came Down

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God of all time and every place; as you came into one place at one time, may we know that you are with us in in this—our time and our place.  Be as near as our own breath: come in word and sacrament; come any way you choose.  And now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight. O Lord our rock and our redeemer.   Amen.

The race to Christmas has finally come to the finish line.  From the rev up  to tonight, which began at Thanksgiving, or Halloween, if you are an over achiever, has come to a screeching halt.  You can slow down now. Any cards that haven’t been sent, presents not purchased, or meals unmade will have to wait, because now, just for a moment, you are invited to take a breath.  Turn off your cell phone, forget the list, take off your coat and come in from the cold, settle into the pew and hear again the story of Christmas in the place it’s best to hear it, in church, decked to the nines in all its finery, trees aglow, even carols and singing by the candlelight.

If you are fortunate enough to be sitting with a family member, don’t take that for granted. Think for a few seconds about the person or people with whom you are sharing this night, and take a second to be grateful for their presence. Treasure the moment with them. This will be the only Christmas that you will have this Christmas, don’t let it go by without treasuring this memory in your heart.  If it was sort of a mess to get here, or you left a mess back home, just leave it there, it doesn’t matter right now.

If there is a void in your heart tonight, a gap, as you long for the presence of one who could not be here tonight, know that that ache, while painful, is overpowering love, let your tears be a healing balm. Let the warm light of God fill that empty space with his love.

That is what this night is all about, after all, isn’t. it?  Essentially this is a night about how Love came to earth.  It’s a story about a family that is really under a lot of stress. – Maybe you can relate.  This family’s stress is messy.  You see, a young ( and by young I mean teenagers) man and woman are engaged, but she’s pregnant, and that would be messy today, it was even messier back then.  It’s really complicated, but they are going to try to make it work, against the odds, and certainly against society.  To make matters worse this young couple is living under an oppressive government, where political tensions are running high. They have to travel to be registered, so later they can be taxed.  So they have to travel, by foot.  Did I mention that she is pregnant?   Not just a little pregnant.  Luke tells us she was great with child.  So great with child, that on the way, the labor pains begin, and by the time they arrive in Bethlehem her contractions are not very far apart, and he is getting nervous, and she is trying to breathe and Bethlehem is crowded with travelers and there is no place for them and things are really getting messy now, and so someone has compassion on them and they  are given the barn in the back, it may have been a cave, or shed, but nevertheless it’s where they keep the animals.  It’s been a while since I’ve been in a barn, but I know that by their very nature they are messy and smelly and not exactly comfortable, but at this point the couple doesn’t care, they are just grateful, because the labor pains are one top of each other by now and she just wants to lay down.  So he makes a bed of hay and she falls back and she cries out and pushers hard, and gives birth to her first born child,  and he lays the baby on top of her chest and takes some cloths that she brought with her and they swaddle him, there in the dark night and suddenly everything that was messy and stressful and hectic and uncertain, falls away, because they are examining his tiny fingernails and the fuzz on his ears, and the way he moves his mouth and they both fall completely, helplessly, un-apologetically in love.

This human story of birth and family and the messiness of all, is also the holiest story of all. It’s a story that brings people out from their homes on a winter night to hear again and again. Why? Because our lives are messy.  Our families are messy.  They’re complicated.  No one has achieved the perfection gene.  Our world is messy, and let’s just leave it at that.  There seems to be no easy solution to anything.   In the midst of all this mess, can we truly believe that anything truly holy is possible?  Can we believe something holy, that God himself can be born in our messy lives?  In our messy world?  Has the message of this season got any chance of conveying a message of hope and peace in our lives, when we are up against illnesses, divorce, job loss, and the weight of the world?  Are we too jaded to think it possible?

It depends, I suppose on whether or not you have ever witnessed love.  Because if you have witnessed love, you have witnessed God.  Love is the miracle that shows up in the messiness of life and doesn’t ask for anything return.  Love shows up when no one else will.  Love comes and brings flowers and sits by the bedside in the hospice ward and sends email messages and writes cards and calls friends and stays in touch.  Love says, “yep you really screwed up and you will have to live with the consequences, but I love you no matter what, and I will stand right next to you, because I know you will do better.”

Love does not take away the messiness of life, love makes the messiness of life liveable.

So tonight, while we retell a story over 2000 years old, we are not giving a lesson in history, we are giving a lesson in mystery, and the mystery is that we believe that Christ lives.  The incarnation, God with us, is the invasion of the God of love into all times and all places.  God with us then, God with us now, God with us always.  Tonight we celebrate what will still be true tomorrow night, and a week from now, and next month and next summer. It never ends.  The love of God is always with us.

St. Paul put it this way, “nothing can separate us from the love of God, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  God’s love never wains.

The question is, will ours? When we leave the glow of the candles and we pack up the decorations, and unwrap the presents, will we still love God, as much as Mary and Joseph did that first night he came to earth?  Can we share in that same wonder that his parents did?

Preacher Henry Van Dyke asks the question, “Are you willing to stoop down and consider the needs and desires of little children; to remember the weaknesses and loneliness of people who are growing old; to stop asking how much your friends love you, and to ask yourself if you love them enough; to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear on their hearts; to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you; to make a grave for your ugly thoughts and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open? Are you willing to do these things for a day? Then you are ready to keep Christmas!”  (Henry VanDyke. “Keeping Christmas,”  1912)

So far all of the things you done and left undone, do not let this holy night pass you by, without taking the time to open your heart, and let the love of God in and keep Christmas.

To all a glory and honor to Him. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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Singing in the Dark, A Winter Solstice Sermon

We are soon approaching the winter solstice.  The shortest day of the year.  The longest night of the year.  The earth will tilt on its axis and those of us in the Northern Hemisphere will move further away from the sun.

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There are many people who are psychologically impacted by these darker days, making some a little down. We have come to believe that darkness is bad and light is good, and so we resist and try to escape the darkness, maybe by going south for the winter,  buying a sunlamp, investing in a stronger dose of vitamin D. There is a reason that we acknowledge that Jesus Christ, the light of the world, is born when the days are darkest, and not in July, when the days are the brightest. – As John writes “those in live in darkness have seen a great light, and that light is the light for all people.”

The world could use some light right now. This week the headlines were particularly ominous.  While we would prefer to not look upon suffering, especially during a holiday season when we just want to feel good, we cannot pretend that suffering does not exist, especially in light of what has been defined as a breakdown of all humanity.

This past Wednesday was National Human Rights Day.  In an address to the United Nations – Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein issued a global call to “Stand up for Someone’s Rights Today” said this—“Today’s events in the world make many among us anxious – even fearful. We see human beings in pain. Decent values under attack. Messages of hatred and intolerance – divisive visions of the world which drive increasing selfishness. Isolation. Scapegoating. Violence. And in this toxic tide of hatred which is slowly rising in many societies, some of the deepest, most essential principles which safeguard peaceful societies risk being swept away. We need to stop this. And I believe we can.  We – you and I – can draw the line.”

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This is not the first time such a prophetic message has been offered to a broken world. The passage we have been studying throughout Advent – the 40th chapter of Isaiah – is a similar call to action.  God instructs the Herald – the prophet to get up to a high mountain, to lift up his voice and say to those who are suffering, rest assured “here is your God.  He is right here, He has been here all along. You are not alone.”

These refugees, who have felt abandoned by God and forgotten by the world, are given a prophet, who  climbs a mountain and looks out over the mass of suffering people and says “here is your God.”

We are the prophets today. We are the ones called to get up on a high mountain and proclaim the presence of a loving, steadfast God.

This morning our choir is going to sing about this prophet and his vision for peace in our violent and dark world. The song, was commissioned by the Bach Choir of Pittsburg in memory of those who perished on September 11, 2001, “The Dream Isaiah Saw” refers to the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God’s creation restored to peace and harmony through the word of the Lord from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:1-5).  It is the panoramic view of the future Messianic Kingdom. The song comes from a poem by Thomas H. Troeger, “Lion and Oxen Will Sleep in the Hay”.  The composer Glenn L. Rudolph began to set this poem to music toward the end of July, 2001.  Nineteen days after September 11th, he completed this choral work.  It captures the contrast of the chaotic world we live in with Isaiah’s dream calling for us to “walk in the light of the Lord.”

Here is an excerpt of the poem:

Peace will pervade more than forest and field:
God will transfigure the Violence concealed
deep in the heart and in systems of gain,
ripe for the judgement the Lord will ordain.
Little child whose bed is straw,
take new lodgings in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
justice purifying law.
Nature reordered to match God’s intent,
nations obeying the call to repent,
all of creation completely restored,
filled with the knowledge and love of the Lord.

And that is why, while these dark days surround us, that today, we sing.

For this is the ultimate, defying, radical, even rebellious message of this season.

Love will prevail. 

For it is love that brings light into this dark world.

It is love that defies evil.

It is love that rules out.

We live in a dark world – a world so counter to the words like peace, joy, hope and love.  And yet, out of faith, out of conviction, and out of courage,

we defy this darkness

and in the dark we sing.

We celebrate an ancient story. It was long ago. It is difficult to imagine, difficult to believe. We are like the shepherds, like old Simeon whom everyone must have assumed was mad. We wait just as our mothers and fathers waited. We wait in the dark, we watch for the light. Each year, as the days grow short and the nights dark, as the years turn and turn again and though it strains our collective memory to do so, we remember. We remember that God came to us and lived among us, a peasant born to a Palestinian virgin, an itinerant preacher hated by the religious and executed by the powerful. We remember, and we wait for his return. And in the dark, we sing.

You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”

And in the dark, we sing.  Amen.

Would the Real Christians Please Stand Up? A Sermon on Humility

If you are thinking to yourself, “I think I heard that Isaiah passage last week, and the week before, you are right” – and we also appreciate you being in worship three weeks in a row.  This Advent season we are meditating on the 40th chapter of the of Isaiah and preaching on different lines of scripture each week.  The first week we looked at the passage in which Isaiah, cries out to the people to prepare the way of the Lord.  The second week we looked at Isaiah’s call of comfort and today we are honing in on this passage:

“All people are like grass.  The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows upon  it.  Surely the people are grass.  The  grass withers, and the flowers fades, but the word of the Lord stands for ever” (Isaiah 40:7-9).   It’s a poem – isn’t it?  The writer repeats the statement that all people are grass and then repeats that the grass and the flowers fade, and what is active is that in first stanza the breath of the Lord blows upon the grass or the people, and the second phase what is left behind are not the people but the word of the Lord.  It’s a humbling statement, isn’t it?   It reminds me of what we say on Ash Wednesday,  quoting Ecclesiastes 3:20. “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”  “All people are like grass…..”

There is a message of  humility to this passage – remembering  that we only here on earth for a short while, but  what remains permanent, constant, is not humanity but the Word of God.

When we think about words that define this season, words that come to mind are words like “joy, peace, love, hope” – these are the words that we lift up on our Advent candles – it probably wouldn’t go over very well to have a” Candle of Humility,” but I think in order to really understand and appreciate both the meaning of Advent, as well as the meaning of Christmas, we must enter the season with a mindset of humility.

Humility is an essential component to practicing the Christian faith. It’s the starting point of following Jesus Christ. It begins from a place of humility. CS Lewis once wrote, “humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is about thinking about yourself less.” Humility in the Christian faith comes from the belief that we do not earn our salvation.  “Because Jesus had to die for us, we are humbled out of our pride, because we was glad to die for us, we are loved out of our need to prove ourselves.”

Now this where I need you to tune in and stay with me, because this gets a little complicated. Preacher Tim Keller makes the point that there are two opposing narratives among Christians. The first narrative Keller calls the “moral performance narrative identity.”  This narrative says, “I obey, therefore I am accepted by God.”  The second narrative is the “grace narrative identity.”  This narrative says, “I am accepted by God through Christ, therefore I obey.”

Keller writes, “people living their lives on the basis of these opposing principles may superficially look alike. They may sit right next to each other in the church pew, both striving to obey the law of God, to pray, to give money generously, to be good family members. But they are doing so out of radically different motives, in radically different spirits, resulting in radically different personal traits.”  The difference is, who initiates the relationship? Is it, “I follow Jesus Christ therefore, I am loved” or is it “I am loved by Jesus Christ therefore I follow him?”

This differentiation helped me understand what is happening in our polarized society. A few months ago, I was listening to The Diane Rehm Show on NPR and a college professor called in and said that for the last 20 years he had served in his community on his local city counsel and taught Sunday school at his church.  He said he felt that our culture was losing its Christian values in being biblically engaged and socially aware.  He said he was noticing that there was a lack of interest in discussing how the Bible and social issues intersect. He was concerned that people were no longer seeing a connection between their faith and their role in society.  The next caller called in and said, he agreed with the previous caller and that we must bring Christian values back to America and reclaim ourselves as a Christian nation.  He said we should do this by “kicking out the Muslims and bringing God into the schools.”  I’m fairly certain that’s not what the first caller meant. Both men claiming the name Christian. Both men desiring to follow Christ.  Both men with completely opposite understandings of what it means to live into those Christian values.

This polarization leaves many non-church going folks wondering which narrative is true? People who never have stepped foot in a church, or been in a church observe these opposing view points and are left asking the question,  “Would the real Christians please stand up?”

If the Christian community is indeed polarized by these two narratives, what, if anything, is there we can do about it? I doubt that either side can convince the other to change their identity. That probably won’t happen. Certainly, convincing someone to think the way we do, is the opposite of humility. The only thing that might begin to bridge our divide is if we can  approach those with whom we disagree, with a measure humility and grace.  Anne Lammot once wrote,  “you can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hate all of the same people you do.”  It would behoove us to all to remember Isaiah’s words, “all of us are grass” and none of us are the Word of God.

All Christians, regardless of their narrative, testify to a mystery they cannot fully understand and yet believe to be true and that is this: that the Word of God became flesh and lived among us.  And when the Word of God came and lived among us, he did not come as a mighty king, or as a person of great influence. The Word of God entered as a naked infant. He was the son of a teenage mother, born in stable.  If the Word of God came into the world with such humility, and if we worship, follow, adhere to this Word, and believe the Word made flesh to be our savior, should we not position ourselves in place more humble than a baby born in a manger?  Should we not bring our own selves to our knees?

Remember humility is not about self loathing. Humility is surrendering yourself to God, and thinking more of others.  United States Senator, Astronaut, World War II Marine and Presbyterian John Glen passed away this week. He was clearly a smart, gifted  and successful man who earned many metals on his lapel. But when he was orbiting the planet, he looked out saw the earth from the heavens, he found himself humbled by it all.  He said, “to look out at this kind creation out here not believe in God is to me impossible…it just strengthens my faith.  I wish there were words to describe what it’s like.”

During this Advent season, come to the manger in awe and wonder and approach the Word of God in a posture of humility.  When faced with someone who sees the world differently from you, love them before you judge them.  Engage in a relationship from a place of humility. Recognize that they too are first and foremost a child of God, whose primary desire is to love and be loved.  Perhaps the solution is starting our relationships with each other from the same place start our relationship with Jesus Christ….to remember our humanity.

I discovered this prayer that I would like to share with you. It’s a humorous prayer that is usually attributed for those more seasoned in life, but it’s truly a prayer for everyone to  hold to memory.

Prayer of an Anonymous Abbess:

Lord, thou knowest better than myself that I am growing older and will soon be old. Keep me from becoming too talkative, and especially from the unfortunate habit of thinking that I must say something on every subject and at every opportunity.

Release me from the idea that I must straighten out other peoples’ affairs. With my immense treasure of experience and wisdom, it seems a pity not to let everybody partake of it. But thou knowest, Lord, that in the end I will need a few friends.

Keep me from the recital of endless details; give me wings to get to the point.

Grant me the patience to listen to the complaints of others; help me to endure them with charity. But seal my lips on my own aches and pains — they increase with the increasing years and my inclination to recount them is also increasing.

I will not ask thee for improved memory, only for a little more humility and less self-assurance when my own memory doesn’t agree with that of others. Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be wrong.

Keep me reasonably gentle. I do not have the ambition to become a saint — it is so hard to live with some of them — but a harsh old person is one of the devil’s masterpieces.

Make me sympathetic without being sentimental, helpful but not bossy. Let me discover merits where I had not expected them, and talents in people whom I had not thought to possess any. And, Lord, give me the grace to tell them so. Amen.

 

 

The Advent of Humility.  Tim Keller

 http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/december/20.51.html