Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jesus' Wish List

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 21:1-4.  This series was based on A Different Kind of Christmas by Rev. Mike Slaughter.

Next week, according to the online auction site eBay, they will have a million extra items on their site, as people seek to purge themselves from presents they have received that they don’t want.  But in the wonders of corporate jargon, this isn’t simply a form of re-gifting; instead, according the eBay spokesman Richard Kanareck, this is re-homing.  Even though 62% of adults, according to a recent survey, claim that spending time with family is the most important thing to do at Christmas, or what they most looked forward to, compared to only 2% who said it was receiving presents, it seems that most of our focus, year after year, is on the very things we know that won’t bring us true happiness, that will in fact distract us from what truly matters, and cause us to be paying bills in January that we’d rather not have, and we miss the very things that we want to be focusing on.  Year after year we continue to treat Christmas as if it is our birthday, rather than Jesus’ birthday and we spend even less time wondering what is on Jesus’ wish list.

One year my father played Santa Clause for a department store in Phoenix.  Now some of you have met my father, and so you know how perfect that is for him, and for those of you who haven’t seen my father, one year I got him a shirt that says “Santa’s Stunt Double” which will tell what he looks like.  As he prepared for that assignment, he came up with a list of what he, as Santa would want for Christmas.  To his great disappointment no one ever asked him, but his wish  list was very similar to the song popularized by Amy Grant entitled, Grown-Up Christmas List, which says “So here's my lifelong wish, my grown-up Christmas list, not for myself, but for a world in need: No more lives torn apart, that wars would never start, and time would heal all hearts, every man would have a friend, that right would always win, and love would never end, this is my grown-up Christmas list.”  Perhaps that is also closer to Jesus’ wish list as well.

We began this series in looking at a different way to do Christmas three weeks ago by hearing Jesus’ first sermon, the message that kicks off Jesus’ ministry for Luke.  Jesus, picks up the scroll from Isaiah and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  To proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’s favor.”  And then throughout the rest of Luke, Jesus continues to do exactly that, and we have spent three weeks looking at how God’s scandalous love works in the world, and how as disciples of Christ we are expected  to pick up our cross, how often?  Daily.  And what are we supposed to do with it?  Follow Christ.  Pick up your cross daily and follow me, Jesus says, and when we do that we have to give up on perfect because when we give ourselves, give our lives full over to God, we are going to be led into the imperfect because it is in the imperfect where God is found.

The nativity story is not perfect, the story of the cross is not perfect, our lives are not perfect, and our Christmas’ will not be perfect, because even that first one was not perfect.  But what God says to us is that we are called to work in the midst of the imperfection, because it is in the imperfect situations where God is needed most, and it is there that we are called to be disciples of Christ to proclaim a message of hope, a message of peace, a message of joy and a message of love, the very things we have been proclaiming each week as we light the advent candles, and we are called to see what Jesus would like to receive for his birthday, but what Jesus asks us to do, what Jesus tells us to do is not to get something for him, but to give something to the world.

One day as Hannah Salwen, who was 15 at the time, and her father were driving through Atlanta, where they lived, as they stopped at a light, she noticed a Mercedes stopped next to them along with a homeless man sitting on the curb, and she said to her father, “If that guy didn’t have such a nice car, then that guy could have a nice meal.”  Hannah’s father Kevin was on the board of Habitat for Humanity for Atlanta, so they were already involved in working  with people in need, but Hannah’s statement led to a greater conversation about what they family had versus what the family needed, and how they might be able to give back.  “We stopped and paused and thought about what are the things in the world that could really make a difference… in the world,” Kevin said.  Initially they thought about selling their cars or other things, but then Hannah’s mother Joan suggested selling their home, moving into a home half the size, and giving half the proceeds to those in need.

No one really expect Joan to be the one to make that suggestion, because this was her dream home.  Built in 1912, it was 6500 square feet, had five bedrooms, eight fireplaces, a cooks kitchen, and even an elevator to take you up to what was Hannah’s room.  “I have to admit,” Joan said, “I loved living in this house.  Does that make me an evil person?  I hope not because it’s a beautiful place.”  But selling the home was a challenge.  “It was a test, almost to see: How committed are we?”  Joan said.  “I mean, how serious are these kids about what we should do?  And they all nodded and there we were.”  And so the Salwen’s put their home up for sale, with an asking price of 1.6 million, they were able to donate $800,000 for charity.  Their money ended up going to help 30 different villages in Ghana, where it was used to build clinics and schools, and to teach the villagers sustainable farming practices.  Jon Coonrods, who is vice president of the Hunger Project, the charity the Salwen’s choose to receive the money, said that in the end the money may help as many as 20,000 people in Ghana.

Now I will admit that the Salwen story may be a little extreme, as I don’t know anyone here who lives in a house worth 1.6 million, and I am not telling you to go sell your homes, but it is an example of the over excess with which many of us live in this country.  “We as American’s have so much,” Kevin Salwen said.  From those who have much, much is expected, Jesus’ said, although that’s not a quote we hear being bantered around much lately.  But we don’t have to give a lot for our gift to have meaning and importance either.

Jesus is watching people place their offerings into the offering box at the temple.  He sees people who have plenty to give, and are doing so, and then he sees a widow who puts in two small copper coins, and he says that she has put in more than any of the others, because those who were wealthy gave from abundance, but she gave everything she had.  To truly understand what is happening here, and what Jesus says, you have to understand what she has contributed.  A denarius was a Roman coin that was equal to one day’s wages for a common day labor.  A denarius was made up of 128 lepta, or a small copper coin, and the widow puts in two lepta, in other words it’s almost a meaningless quantity, and yet hers is the amount that Jesus holds us because she has given what she has.  By what standards do we judge ourselves and others?  We lift up the stories like those of the Salwen’s because of what they give.  We name buildings after those who give a lot, but Jesus recognizes the smallest gift that everyone else would overlook because of its importance.  Small gifts are easily overlooked or ignored all together, but sometimes that are the ones that make all the difference in the world.

How often do we down play the small acts we do, or that we might do, because we think they are unimportant, that they don’t measure up to what people are really concerned about, that they are too small to even pay attention to?  This week I read a story of a security guard at Disneyland who kneels down in front of every little girl who is dressed up like a princess and asks for their autograph.  Such a simple act, but what do you think those little girls will remember from their trip to the happiest place on earth?  It doesn’t take selling a 6500 sq ft home to make a difference in the world, but how many people overlook what that security guard does?  By singling out the gift of the widow, Jesus highlights the insidious effects of claiming that those who give more are more important, or even better people, than those who give small gifts.  But the importance is not in what we give, but how we give and what the gift means in relation to who we are.  Do we give from abundance, that we can give without it making any difference, or do we give sacrificially, and does our gift match what Jesus has called us to do in the world?

Every year, without fail, as I talk about rethinking Christmas, of calling us to do Christmas differently, someone will accuse me of not liking Christmas, of being the Grinch who wants to ruin people’s traditions.  But, nothing could be further from the truth.  I love Christmas, which if you’ve driven by our house you might see, and I have spent the last seven weeks listening to the 225 Christmas Cds that I have in our personal collection.  Santa will be visiting our house this year, and we will be giving and receiving presents, but we do thinks a lot differently then we have in the past, and I hope that Christmas is becoming more meaningful for us and for our children.  It’s not the presents we give or receive it’s the time we spend together, and the memories that we create, the experiences we have, and how we experience Christ and how we offer Christ to the world that make a difference.  Giving presents is important, and learning how to be a grateful receiver is also important, but it’s a question of priorities and what the giving and the receiving mean and why we are undertaking these activities.

Jenee Woodward has impacted your worship experience nearly every week even though most of you have probably never heard of her.  She was studying to go into the ministry when she and her husband gave birth to a son who was severely autistic, and so she gave up her career to stay at home to care for him.  But what she could do was create a website which provides resources, enormous amounts of resources, for preachers. A number of years ago she wrote this story.  She says “Our family learned to slow down at Christmas a number of years ago when [our son] was unable to tolerate *any* of the celebration. He could not handle the changing scenarios - the twinkling lights, the changes in grocery store displays, the changes in the sanctuary at church, presents appearing under the tree, the tree ITSELF, and the moved furniture. He would fall on the floor and scream, unable to move, afraid to open his eyes, almost constantly from Thanksgiving until well after Christmas when it was all over. We carried him through that time his head covered with his coat so we could get through the grocery store, or sat with him huddled in his room, carefully ordered EXACTLY the same since summer, with no Christmas trappings.

Worship on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day was over-crowded and yet hushed, not a good combination for an autistic child. Christmas celebrations at home were a nightmare. Phil would scream and cry as each package was moved and (gasp!) unwrapped. As frightened as he was when each new thing appeared, he was equally frightened when it changed or disappeared. We'd try to find him a present he'd enjoy, but he'd merely scream and cry in panic at the intrusion on his carefully ordered world, and the gifts would sit ignored until he outgrew them and we gave them to some little boy who could appreciate them.

He wanted nothing. He asked for nothing. He anticipated nothing. He just screamed and cried at all of it. It is no bliss to have a child who doesn't get it - who doesn't want anything and doesn't want to have anything to do with Christmas commercialism - or it is only bliss in some romantic fantasy. In real life it is a surreal nightmare.

One year, right around Thanksgiving, we once more asked the kids what they wanted for Christmas. Our 14-year-old daughter sat down and made out her list. And our 10-year old son, for the first time in his life, answered the question. "PlayStation 2," he said. "I want PlayStation 2 Christmas." We just about fell over. His sister gave him a piece of paper. She wrote "Phil's Christmas List" at the top. He wrote, "PLAYSTATION TOW" under her heading. "At Sam's," he said. "Go to car."

So, we drove to Sam's. He has never looked at anything there, never seemed to notice that Sam's has anything he might want. But he led us right to the PlayStation 2 sets, picked out the bundle he wanted and put it in the cart. "Open at Christmas," he said. He watched gleefully as we wrapped the package, and then he solemnly placed it under the tree. So, a PlayStation 2 game set sits there, wrapped, with his name on it, and he waits to open it. "December 25," he says. "Open PlayStation 2 December 25."

Last night we'd returned from yet another Christmas rehearsal with our daughter, Phil found a Best Buy ad in the paper and turned immediately to the PlayStation games. He circled "Harry Potter" and "John Madden Football", handed the ad to Bob, and said, "I want Christmas." There were tears in my eyes. It's such a small thing, but such a truly amazing thing. It's one more bit of hope that he will be able to function in some semblance of society as an adult one day - Consumerism might be "the enemy", but a kid who understands none of it is only a hero in a Chicken Soup for the Soul story.

This Advent season I am grateful for being able to appreciate what complexity and miracle is involved in such small "selfish" acts as wanting something for Christmas and expressing those wants to another person. I'm grateful that my son is able to enjoy some of the commercial cultural trappings of the holiday this year instead of running from them screaming. I'm grateful for the many ways Phil helps me stop and look again, even at my most "Christian" conclusions. And I'm especially grateful that my son helps me see Christ's humble birth, over and over again, even in the midst of nightmares and worries I could not have imagined 10 years ago."

Christmas has nothing to do with us, and it has everything to do with.  Christmas is not our birthday, it is Jesus’ birthday, and we celebrate God’s greatest gift to us, we are recipients of God’s gracious and scandalous love, and we are called to give up on perfect and instead to dream God’s dreams and to be God’s agents of change in the world, to proclaim the Christmas miracle not only in our lives but for the lives of the world.  We are called to pick up our cross daily and to follow Christ and to live into and live out Jesus’ wish list for the world.  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Scandalous Love

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The passage was Luke 19:1-10. This series was based on A Different Kind of Christmas by Rev. Mike Slaughter.

Bishop Will Willimon tells the story of the first time he went to visit a prisoner on death row.  He said he was a little nervous going in knowing that the person he was going to be meeting with had probably committed some atrocious crime.  After arriving at the prison he was searched and then given a long set of instructions about what he could and could not do and could and could not say, and when he entered the room he had no idea what was going to happen.

After the prisoner he was meeting with sat down, Bishop Willimon asked him what he wanted to talk about, he said “Do you think the United Methodist Church is doing enough to reach out to a new generation offering them Christ?”  That was not really the question he expected to start the conversation out with.  As they continued to talk, Bishop Willimon found out that the man had become a Christian while on death row.  When asked how he came to Christ, the man said “well I heard a lot about Jesus and I thought he and I had a lot in common.”  To which Bishop Willimon said, “are you Jewish too?”  “No,” the man said, “Jesus was on death row and was executed by the state, and I’m on death row waiting to be executed by the state, so I think we’ve faced the similar things.”

Sometimes I think we have so domesticated and boxed in the gospel message, that sometimes we forget that the Jesus we worship was arrested, tried and executed by the state and the symbol of that execution is hanging here right in front of us every week.  I think people have a better sense of what crucifixion was like because of Mel Gibson’s Passion, from a few years ago, although I think that Gibson over did it but if you’ve seen most of his other movies you know that he has an interest in gratuitous violence.  But the Romans were really good, and very creative, in their torture techniques, but when we sanitize the cross, when we sanitize how Jesus was killed and why he was killed, we lose a lot.  We lose the scandal of the cross.  Jesus was killed because he was seen as a threat to the Empire and to those in power.  If he was just some guy who was walking around saying that we should all just get along, nothing would have happened to him, he would not have been arrested, and sometimes we sanitize what it means to be a Christian to that sort of message, but we have to understand the edge of Jesus’ ministry, we have to understand the threat that he posed to those in power, both other Jews and the Romans, and we have to understand his offering of God’s scandalous love.

In addition to sanitizing what actually happened at the cross, we also sanitize and sentimentalize what happened when Jesus was born, which we covered last week, but let us remember that Mary was a young girl, maybe no older than 13 or 14, and she became pregnant before she was married.  The penalty for such an offense, especially since she was engaged, was death by stoning, and this wasn’t just an idle threat that was never carried out, it would have been a real threat for Mary, and yet that is what we are told about Jesus’ birth.  He is born to a teenage mother who was not married when she became pregnant.  Like the cross, this too is pretty scandalous.   I’m sure that Mary got plenty of criticism from friends and family.  I’m sure that she was chastised and maybe even ostracized by some, and would her reception be any different in the church today? How many churches, even though we all know the story, would welcome a pregnant teenager who was not married, or even if she was a married, with open arms?  How many churches would be willing to extend a welcome to a Mary in their midst?  Or how many would be willing to extend a welcome to someone who is, or has been in prison, let alone death row?

I’m willing to bet not a whole lot, because in a survey done a few years ago, adult churchgoers with teenage children were asked, from a list of situations provided, what would be most likely reason to stop them from going to church, and the number two reasons were a son who was arrested, or a daughter who became pregnant.  We worship as the messiah, who was born to a teenage mother and who was arrested and executed by the state, but the number one reason given by parents of teenagers of why they would stop attending church was if their teenage daughter got pregnant or their son got arrested.  What part of the gospel message are we missing?        

We see time and time again in scripture that God and Jesus offer a scandalous love, by  offering that love to people others think are not worthy, people who clearly have fallen away from God’s ways, people who are outside the pale of acceptability, and yet they are offered God’s love.  Scandalous is defined causing scandal or shocking, and that is the type of love that God offers and calls for us to offer.

CrossRoads United Methodist Church has been ordered by an Arizona state court to stop offering free meals to the homeless community of Phoenix.  Neighbors complained about the church inviting the homeless into the neighborhood to be served, you know bringing “those types of people in,” even though the church has been reaching out to the homeless population in the area for more than 50 years.  Rev. Dottie Frank, the pastor of the church, said they would fight the decision.  “We must stand together with those who are suffering,” she said.  “We just can’t stop caring for and feeding those who need us most.”  Scandalous love is in reaching out to those the world says we shouldn’t be reaching out to.  “the son of man came to seek out and save the lost,” Jesus says, which is exactly what Jesus does in today’s passage as well.

Zacchaeus is not a good guy, at least in the eyes of the world in which he lived.  He’s not only a tax collector, but he is the chief tax collector.  Of course with the impending financial cliff, as they are calling it, looming in front of us, we are hearing a lot about taxes right now, as we did in the election, but regardless of our own feelings about taxes, we cannot apply our understanding to that of the ancient world.  What happened in the Roman Empire was that Rome would open up a contract on tax collections, and whoever bid to give them the most money would win.  Then that person, or family, or group, would go out into the cities and countryside to collect whatever they could, with the bare minimum being what they had agreed to pay to Rome.  But, in order to make any money at the enterprise, they had to collect money above what they owed to the Romans.  Rome really didn’t care what tactics tax collectors might use to get the money, as long as there was no unrest caused.  As you might guess the system was ripe for corruption, and the fact that we are told that Zacchaeus was rich tells us that he was really good at what he did, which was shaking people down for everything he could get.  Tax collectors were viewed as traitors to their faith, as collaborators, they weren’t even considered Jewish anymore. 

But then Jesus displays his scandalous love.  Zacchaeus has climbed a sycamore tree in order to see who Jesus was, and Jesus calls him down and tells him that he is going to stay at his house.  In today’s translation, we are told that Zacchaeus is happy, but a better translation of the Greek word here is “rejoiced.”  Zacchaeus rejoiced in welcoming Jesus into his home, and of course the people grumbled.  How can Jesus associate with this sinner?  How could he possibly want to be seen with someone who has betrayed not only his people but his faith?  How can he socialize with one of those people?

But Jesus’ scandalous love says that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ home.  The man who is beyond redemption has been redeemed.  Zacchaeus says that he will give half of his money to the poor, and he will give a four-fold restitution to those he has cheated.  The problem is he does not have enough money to carry out what he has pledged to do.  He couldn’t even give a two-fold restitution because everything that he has, all of his wealth is gotten from collecting taxes, so all of it is from cheating and defrauding people either directly or indirectly. Salvation comes to Zacchaeus not because what he pledges to do, but because Jesus has entered his house and because God’s grace and love are truly extravagant and scandalous, and they flow even to those of us who are undeserving of it.  Salvation comes to Zacchaeus because he is willing to climb down from the tree to receive God’s scandalous love, and because of God’s scandalous love Jesus is willing to climb up on a tree and become the Christ.

The Church of the Common Ground is located in Atlanta, Georgia, and every Monday they too run a program reaching out to the homeless population of Atlanta, but there program is a little different.  Every Monday, Rev. Bob Book and a group of volunteers wash the feet of the homeless men and women who show up.  They get a soak, a pumice rub, nail trim, massage and a fresh pair of socks.  The service isn’t merely symbolic, reenacting Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet, but it also helps stave off foot infections, which affect the homeless disproportionately, many of which also lead other health problems.  If any of those being served need medical attention for their feet, Rev. Book tells people when they can come back for a free medical exam when there’s a doctor volunteering their time at the church.  And while their feet are being cleaned, other volunteers clean their shoes, providing air fresheners, and even new insoles.  What does scandalous love look like?  Let me provide one more story from scripture.

Hosea, a prophet with whom most of us are probably not familiar, is told by God to go and marry “a wife of whoredom,” that is to take a prostitute as his wife, and so he married Gomer, and later again God tells Hosea “Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress.”  And why does God tell Hosea to do this?  Because Gomer, Hosea’s unfaithful wife, represents the Israelites, represents you and I who turn from God, who are unfaithful to the things we are called to do, and yet in spite of all of that God loves us.  God wants to be in relationship with us, and God enteres into this relationship knowing all that will happen.  Hosea says “the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.”  I don’t really understand that last part, maybe it’s like living fruit cake, but God loves us scandalously because God loves us regardless of all the things we do wrong, regardless of the fact that we fail to live up to what we are called to do, but God is faithful nonetheless.  God offers a scandalous love that includes pregnant teenage girls, and chief tax collectors, and homeless men and women, and ranchers and teachers and postal employees and those who work for the railroads and retirees and even poor preachers.  God loves each of us scandalously, and what does God want in return?  God wants us to love scandalously as well.

“God is not oblivious to the fact that one child dies every five seconds of a hunger-related cause,” Rev. Mike Slaughter says.  “God knows that one child dies every forty-five seconds from malaria, which could be prevented by a simple mosquito net that costs less than ten dollars.  It is not a secret to him that, each year in Darfur, as many as sixty thousand children die from dehydration due to diarrhea caused by water-borne illnesses,” and I believe that God cries over each of these situations, because they are preventable by scandalous love.  God cries over the 27 people who died in the terrible and senseless shooting on Friday, but God also cries for the average of 55 children and teens that are killed by guns every single week according to the Center for Disease Control.  Every week there is the equivalent of two shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, every single week.  Now in doing some research on this this week, one of the common refrains I read was that that number included teenagers, and in particular African-Americans who are involved in gang activity, implying that they shouldn’t really count because it’s those people who are doing those things.

What Christmas reminds us again is that God’s ways are not our ways.  “For God so loved the world, that he gave us his only son,” John says.  The incarnation is the revelation of God’s scandalous love affair with humanity.  “Behold I bring you good news of great joy,” say the angels to the shepherds, “that shall be for all people.”  It is not good news for some people, it is for all people, “to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the messiah, the lord.”  Good news of great joy that shall be for all people.  God’s love is truly scandalous.  We began this series by talking about the miracles that we might create this Christmas season, and most of those miracles are created simply by offering a scandalous love.

Hosea loves Gomer, and Jesus goes Zacchaeus’ home, and Bishop Willimon visits prisoners on death row, and Elizabeth, pregnant with her own scandalous child John the Baptist, says to Mary “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  I’m sure that is not the greeting that Mary expected, but that is the scandalous love that she received.  What the Christmas story shows us time and time again is that God’s ways are not our ways.  God loves scandalously and bounteously, but God wants us to live the same way. 

Helzberg Diamonds is currently running an ad, in which they are asking us to tell them “how you know you’re loved.”  Of course what they want is for you to buy a diamond, or to receive a diamond, in order to prove that you love or that you are loved, but you want to know the ultimate way that you know that you are loved?  It is to look into the manger and to know that we have received  the greatest gift that the world has ever received, the gift of the Christ child, because God so loved the world, and it is because of the scandalous love of God  that God loves each and every one of us, and wants to be in relationship with each and every one of us, and who wants us to return that love, by having us offer a scandalous love the world.  The question that must then be answered is what are we going to do about that?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Giving Up On Perfect

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 9:18-27.   This series was based on A Different Kind of Christmas by Rev. Mike Slaughter.

This is a famous painting by Norman Rockwell, and it has been used to represent the sort of perfect holiday gathering. Grandma and grandpa serving the turkey with the entire family gathered around.  It, along with much else that Rockwell had to paint, have become a symbol of a sort of lost time in America, except for the fact that these times never really existed.  Rockwell himself said that he didn’t paint what was, but instead what he hoped to be.  But still, we have sanitized, idealized and idolized this image, just as we have done with Rockwell’s other paintings of the holidays, that this is what things are supposed to look like, these are what we are to strive for, and if we don’t make it look like this then we are missing something, because surely others are having these types of holidays aren’t they?  And so we strive to have that perfect Christmas, and we strive and we strive and we strive, and yet we never quite get there, it’s always that allusive thing that’s just beyond our grasp, and so we simply say, “well next year, this is what we will do differently in order to make it perfect,” and yet next year is never perfect either.  We try and live into this perfect picture, this perfect world, this perfect ideal, but not only can it never be, but it never ever was either.  And we’ve done the same thing with our story of the nativity as well, in order to sentimentalize it, we have removed the reality from it, and made it out to be this perfect scene.

If you were here on Christmas eve last year, I asked you to picture any nativity set you’ve ever had or ever seen, and just like the one we are assembling here, where Mary looks peaceful and serene, not at all tired after having just walked 80 plus miles and then given birth to a baby, and Joseph looks on adoringly.  Even our Christmas hymns sanitize it all.  In Away in a Manger, we sing “the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”  So let me get this straight, a newborn is woken up suddenly by cows mooing, but he doesn’t cry?  That’s unlike any infant I’ve ever been around.  I understand that Jesus is special, but am I really supposed to believe he didn’t cry when a cow woke him up from his nap?

Growing up my favorite songs were two Bing Crosby classics, Do You Hear What I Hear? and The Little Drummer Boy, but it’s the second of those that is really at the heart of ridiculousness.  What person, even a young first time mother, is going to let anyone play a drum around a baby, especially one that is not yet crying, and what about the ox and lamb who are keeping time, or the other barnyard animals, as we all know there is a certain odiferousness that comes along with them, and flies and everything else, but that is not what we think of when we picture the nativity.  We have created an image in our minds and in our art of perfection that cannot be achieved, that we hold up and imagine every year at Christmas.

Last week we heard the annunciation made to Mary that she has “found favor with God” and that she will conceive and bear a son.  A girl, maybe no older than 13 or 14, is told that she is to become pregnant outside of marriage, without having relations with her betrothed.  This is not a blessing, this is something which can and often did result in the death penalty, and she’s supposed to be happy about this?  And then there’s Joseph, who finds out that Mary is pregnant and he is supposed to stay with her, even though the child is not his, and he is supposed to be happy about it.  This is one of those times that we might say it’s not a blessing but a curse, or maybe with friends like God, who needs enemies?  Maybe you’ve had similar thoughts at some point in your life.  Now maybe they were truly happy, but I imagine instead a lot of turmoil and worry and consternation and alarm and anxiety and fear and apprehension.  I don’t imagine that they just simply sat back and thanked God for everything that was happening and wondered how they could be so blessed and important.

And then just at the time that Jesus is to be born, Mary and Joseph have to leave their home and travel back to Bethlehem. Just at the time that Mary needs the women in her life to support her during the birth of her child, including her cousin Elizabeth who has already given birth to the baby who will become John the Baptist, she is left all alone.  And they reach Bethlehem, but there was no room in the inn, and so Mary gives birth.  We are actually not told in scripture where the birth takes place, we tend to think of it as being in a barn, or maybe a cave, but we are not told.  It’s just as likely that she gave birth in the street, all that we do know is that she laid the baby in a manger, which is a feeding trough.  And then Mary and Joseph are visited by a bunch of shepherds, who are not seen as being a respectable group of people, in fact they, like women, could not testify in court because they were not considered trustworthy, and let’s be honest, they’ve been out in the fields, and have probably been there for a long time, and so they has to be a certain odor that comes with them.  And so there are Mary and Joseph and the baby, surrounded by the mud and the muck of the street, and the stench and effluvia of the animals, and the shepherds, and maybe someone pounding on their drum.

This was about as imperfect of a birth as you can get.  And then we are told, that sometime between the birth and the time he turns two, that Mary and Joseph must flee with Jesus and go to live as exiles in Egypt, because Herod orders the death of all male children under the age of two.  It’s a good thing the Egyptians did not have a strict anti-illegal immigrant policy.  Is that how you picture the birth of Jesus?  Is that the image you conjure in your mind of what that night, and the days that followed must have been like?  It was definitely not like a Norman Rockwell painting, and it was far from perfect.  And so how does that true image of what happened that night fit into our idea of the perfect celebration of Christmas?  And with all this in mind what does it mean to call Jesus and to understand Jesus as the messiah?

In his story, The Wise Men, Mike O’Marry recalls his second grade Christmas pageant at his catholic school.  “I  played one of the three wise men,” he says.  “I was the second wise man–the one who brought the frankincense.  I enjoyed being one of the wise men. There were bigger parts–Mary and Joseph had pretty substantial roles, and even the innkeeper and shepherds had more lines–but being a wise man was quite a distinction. You had to carry yourself with grace and dignity. You had to look wise.   That’s why I was a little confused when I learned that Mike Walston had also been designated a wise man.  Mike Walston was singled out as different, possibly ignorant, and, generally speaking, not a good person to associate with. All I knew was that the honor of being designated a wise man had been diminished by my having to share that distinction with Mike Walston. And to make matters worse, he was the head wise man. He was to present the gold.

We began rehearsals right after Thanksgiving. We three kings would stand in the wings during most of rehearsal, Mike Walston first, me behind him, and Joey Amback, the myrrh guy, behind me. When it was time for us to enter, Mike Walston, being gold, would lead the way.  Unfortunately, Mike Walston was having trouble remembering his lines. (“We are the three wise men. I bring you gold.”) As we got closer to opening night, Mike Walston was still having trouble. Many of us speculated that Sister Julia would have to make a switch, and I, being frankincense and the next wise man on the totem pole, was the likely candidate to move up. So when Sister Julia asked me to stay after school the day before the performance, I was prepared: If she felt my talents were better suited to the role of head wise man, I would, with all due grace and dignity, accept the promotion and present gold to the Christ-child on opening night.  But that’s not what Sister Julia wanted. Instead, I heard these shocking words: “I want you to help Mike Walston remember his lines when we perform the play tomorrow night.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  “I want you to practice his lines with him before you go on stage,” Sister Julia continued, “and if he forgets his lines when he kneels down by the baby Jesus, I want you to kneel down beside him and whisper his lines to him so the audience doesn’t know he forgot.”  I walked home that day in a daze. This was not the way it was supposed to be. Nonetheless, the next night, I did as Sister Julia told me and Mike Walston and I went right to work on his lines: “We are the three wise men. I bring you gold.”  He did it fine offstage when he was relaxed, but I was afraid that once we got on stage, he’d freeze. I was prepared though: if he froze, I’d kneel down beside him and bail him out. If nothing else, my friends would know who was the hero and who was the goat.  The play went on and then it was time for our big entrance.

Mike Walston led us across the stage toward the Star of Bethlehem and the manger. With Mary and Joseph looking on, Mike knelt in front of the baby Jesus and–didn’t say a word. He froze. I was about to kneel down to help him, but just then, he glanced up at me and smiled a big smile. Then he turned, looked at Mary, and spat out his lines: “We are the three wise men. I bring you gold.”  I was stunned. There was a fairly long pause before Joey Amback gave me a nudge. Then I remembered where I was. I knelt down next to Mike Walston, turned to Mary, and said, “And I bring you gold.”

I couldn’t believe my own words. I was the frankincense guy, but I had said, plain as day, “I bring you gold.” There was a shocked hush over the entire church basement audience–broken only by a few nervous coughs–until Joey Amback knelt next to me and said, “Yeah, I bring you gold, too.”  Then the whole audience roared. The third wise man had bailed me out. Life in the second grade would go on. I would not have to spend my remaining days standing against the fence during recess. And Mike Walston would receive kudos for his fine performance.

The lesson stuck with me. Years later, when my boss was having trouble and there was talk of replacing him, I remembered the Christmas play and lent him a hand. There’s room for compassion in this world. I know firsthand that even the wisest of wise men stumble once in a while."

It wasn’t in the perfection of that Christmas pageant that Mike O’Marry encountered the true meaning of Christmas and what it means to be a disciple, nor was it in the perfection that he encountered the grace of God.  No, God was found for Mike O’Marry, and the lessons he learned were found in the imperfections.

Who do the crowds say that I am, Jesus asks the disciples.  Jesus has just fed the five thousand with only five loaves and two fishes, so they must think he’s someone important.  And so Peter gives him some answer, but then Jesus says, “But who do you say that I am?”  That is the question that all of us must answer, and Peter’s answer is “The Messiah of God.”  For Luke this proclamation of Peter is directly related to the nativity story, because Peter is the first person to make the proclamation since the angels say to the shepherds “to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the messiah, the Lord.”  But to understand the proclamation of Lordship of Jesus as Messiah, Jesus then makes clear what comes with that, and that is to pick up our cross daily and to follow him.  This is not really about the readiness to die in the time of persecution, but instead about yielding ourselves to God every single day, continually following and continually picking up our cross.  This is the ultimate mark of giving up on perfection because it is giving ourselves over entirely to God and letting God guide us and lead us, and that is bound to lead us into things that are less than perfect.

And what we discover is that it is in the mess and the muck and the stuff of life where we find God.  In fact I might even argue that God is not found in perfection, but instead in imperfection.  Jesus says I did not come to save the righteous, but sinners.  God is not found in perfection, God is found in imperfection.  God does not come in spite of the mud and the muck and the imperfect stuff of our lives, God comes because of those things, and when we treat God as a way to give us whatever we want, most importantly at this time of year some sense of perfection, then not only do we miss out on our call to discipleship but we miss out on encountering God altogether.  God is not found in perfection, God is found in imperfection, and we celebrate the birth of Jesus’, Immanuel, God with us, in the midst of all of this stuff of our lives, because the true miracle of Christmas is that in the midst of all of this stuff in our lives God shows up.  God shows up in the most unimaginable of places and is born to the most unimaginable of parents, and the good news is given to the most unimaginable of people, even us.  It is time for us to give up our search for holiday perfection because God is not found in perfection, God is with us in our imperfection, not inspite of it, but because of it.

I have spent my entire adult life searching for a Norman Rockwell Christmas
And I have never found it” says an online poem written by Paula.
“I want everything to be perfect.
I want a huge, real pine tree. Decorated with perfect lights.
Garland perfectly wrapped around and around.
Perfect Christmas ornaments hung perfectly spaced.
Perfectly wrapped presents with perfect ribbon and bows.
The smells of Christmas waft through the house.
Cinnamon, wassail, pine and cookies.
Perfectly dressed children sitting patiently under the tree waiting
to take turns unwrapping those perfectly wrapped gifts.
Then they scream and oh and ah that it is the perfect present.
"Just what I wanted"
Then the family gathers around the piano and sings Christmas Carols
while the snow falls outside. And the stars twinkle.
And the carolers sing.
And everyone is happy.
And in the oven is baking the perfect turkey.
To be served with all the perfect side dishes.
And everyone is happy.
that has never, ever happened at my house.
In fact one year my son so aptly pointed out
"Mom, we don't even own a piano."
So I am not looking anymore.
Cause my artificial tree with a string of lights that don't work is perfect.
And the presents that are unevenly wrapped and have no ribbons and bow are perfect.
And the kids that will sit under our tree, while not perfect, are happy.
And they will oh and ah and be happy with what they get.
And hopefully there won't be any snow.
And we are having ham and not turkey.
And I might try to make some wassail.
How hard can that be?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Expect A Miracle

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 4:16-21.  This sermon series was based on the book A Different Kind of Christmas by Rev. Mike Slaughter.

In the movie Grand Canyon, Mary McDonell’s character finds a baby which has been abandoned under a bush, in talking with her husband, played by Kevin Kline, she tells him that her finding the baby was a miracle, which he discounts.  But she responds that maybe miracles are so rare that we don’t notice them when they occur.  While I love that movie, that line has always struck me as being wrong.  if something is really rare, those are the things we tend to notice.  So instead of being rare, maybe miracles are in fact so common that we no longer notice them, they are in fact so common they we no longer call them miracles, they are in fact so common that they pass us by every single day, maybe even the ones being done by us, and we never even notice they are there.

And if we ignore miracles during the rest of the year, I think we’re even more prone to ignore them during Christmas because most of us just want to get through it, we can’t wait until it’s over.  In Dr. Seuss’ classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, he says “the Grinch hated Christmas, the whole Christmas season, oh don’t ask why no one quite knows the reason…”  But for most of us we could be able to name the reason.  It’s a time of stress and hustle and bustle, it’s a time of even busier schedules and fuller calendars, or maybe we are dealing with loss or illness or one of the many other things that keep us from even believing it’s the most wonderful time of the year, let alone living like it, and so we miss the miracles of the season, the small ones and even more importantly the big ones.  We become so obsessed with the things we are told to be focusing on during this time of the year, that we even miss the gift of Jesus Christ in our lives.  Is there another way to live and a different way of doing Christmas?  I think there is, and so today we begin looking at a different way.  Over the next four weeks will focus on the ways that Christmas can, and does, make a difference in our lives, based on a series created by Rev. Mike Slaughter, and promoted by the church for this advent season

Today’s passage from Luke is really about one of those miracles, and in two very different ways.  In Luke this is the first message that Jesus delivers, it happens even before Jesus has called the twelve disciples.  If we ask what is the Gospel, which literally means good news, for Luke?  It is a message of redemption, welcome and inclusion.  This is miracle of what Jesus represents to us, and the miracle of his birth.  But for those who hear the gospel message of hope in this passage, then it is also a witness of a miracle.  Picking up the scroll and reading from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus says, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

For the poor, for the blind, for the oppressed, for the captives, this is a miracle message of hope that not only has God heard their cries, but that is doing something about it.  That Jesus is going to make this proclamation to them, to us, and to the entire world about why he has come.  Jesus has come to proclaim the acceptable year of the lord’s favor, which means the year of jubilee, or the 49th year when all debts would be forgiven.  Now that would truly be a miracle, and it has been a claim that has brought hope to people as long as the statement has been made.  “the spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me” he has appointed you “to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me” he has sent you, “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  What miracle does the world need this Christmas?  Who do you know who needs a miracle this Christmas?  What miracle do you need this Christmas?

Since we’re in an area in which you understand the importance of high school football, and especially understand what it is like in Texas, so you will understand what happened at Grapevine Faith Christian School in 2008 that made it so remarkable.  Located 20 miles north of Dallas, the Faith Lions, as they are called, had 70 players, 11 coaches, the best equipment money could buy and were 7-2 going into a game against a team from Gainesville.  Although only another 50 miles to the north, Gainesville might as well have been a million miles away because of the differences.

They only had 14 players and 1 coach, had no field and so every game was on the road.  They usually only had a few fans who traveled with them and that did not include any cheerleaders or band, and they went into the game with Grapevine at 0-8, having scored only two touchdowns the entire season.  For you see the Gainesville school is a maximum security prison for teenagers.  Knowing the great disparity between the two teams, Faith’s head coach Kris Horgan came up with a truly radical idea.  What if for one game, he said, the Faith community split their fans in half and had a full sideline cheering for the other team, and what if they sent their JV cheer line over in order to lead their fans in cheers for the other team?

After this idea was announced, one player walked into the coach’s office and asked why they were doing this?  The coach responded “Imagine if you didn’t have a home life.  Imagine if everyone had pretty much given up on you.  Now imagine what it would mean for hundreds of people to suddenly believe in you.”  And so for one night, when the Gainesville players got off the bus and had their handcuffs removed, they ran onto the field through a throng of cheering fans and through a paper banner held for them by their cheerleaders, and the stands on their side of the field were full of people cheering for them.  “I thought they were confused” said one Gainesville player, “they started yelling ‘dee-fense!’ when their team had the ball.”  Another player said “We can tell people are a little afraid of us when we come to the games.  You can see it in their eyes.  They’re lookin at us like were criminals.  But these people, they were yellin for us!  By our names!”

Coach Horgan’s message to the Faith community was simple: “here’s the message I want you to send,” he said, I want you to let them know that they “are just as valuable as any other person on planet earth.”  Although Faith beat them 33-14, for one night the Gainesville Football players were just as normal as anyone else.  After the game, as the faith players gathered at the center of the field for prayer, the Gainesville quarterback and linebacker, whose name was Isaiah, as if you need another message from God, joined them and asked if he could lead the prayer.  “We had no idea what the kid was going to say,” Coach Horgan said, but Isaiah said this: Lord, I don’t know how this happened, so I don’t know how to say thank you, but I never would’ve known there was so many people in the world that cared about us.”  As the Gainesville players made their way back to the bus, surrounded by 12 uniformed guards and were handcuffed for the ride back the prison, their coach grabbed coach Horgan and said “You’ll never know what your people did for these kids tonight.  You’ll never, ever know.”

The spirit of the Lord is upon me because God has anointed us to proclaim miracles to the world, and more importantly to expect miracles and even to be the miracle workers.  Maybe it will be as simple as Nine Nanas, an anonymous group of women who bake cakes for people they know who need a pick-me-up, which they then leave on their front porches with a note that simply says, “somebody loves you.”  Maybe it’s as simple as Teresa Gavin, who inspired by an anonymous donor who gave a kidney to her uncle, decided to give one of her kidneys, and her act spun a group of 30 other people who also paid it forward and donated a kidney to others.  Or maybe it’s as simple as two strangers who lifted Patrick Connelly out of his wheel chair and held him on their shoulders for 20 minutes in 100-degree heat so that he could actually see Blake Shelton perform at the concert he was attending.

The prophet Isaiah, the same one whom Jesus quotes, says “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named wonderful counselor, mighty God, ever lasting Father, prince of peace.  His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.”  The simple truth is God does not bring about amazing miracles through great actions, “miracles” Rev. Slaughter said  “are conceived and delivered through ordinary people who are willing to dream God’s dreams and then act on God’s vision.

One of the biggest obstacles to revealing and creating miracles is the simple fact that we don’t think we can do it, that the problems are too big for us, or we don’t know where to begin.  “If we really try to grasp the full import of” of what we are trying to do, Carolyn Bush says, “we may despair, or try to hide or run away because we do not know what is to be done.  That is where faith communities come into place,” she says.  “(Faith communities) believe in the possibility of transformation, of turning around from the path we have been following.  Equally as important, in the Christian faith tradition, is hope.”    Immanuel means God with us.  “God doesn’t need your ability” Mike Slaughter says,  “God will work the miracle through you – all God needs is your availability and commitment to act.”

In your bulletin you will find a card, and on that card I want you to write a “Christmas Miracle Wish List” for the world.  I want you to write 3-4 miracles, or more if you would like, that you would like to see happen this year, and then I want you to select one and commit to a specific way that you can make on these Christmas miracles happen this year. What will be your miracle this year?  What miracle will you bring about this year?  what miracle do you need this year?  To make change in the world, we must become the change that we seek.

This reminds me of the starfish story written by Loren Eiseley, which some of you probably also know:
One day a man is walking down by the ocean, when he sees someone else father down the beach who looked like he is dancing.  The man smiles when he thinks of someone who would dance to the day, and so he picks up his step.  As he gets closer he sees that it is a young man, and he is not dancing at all, instead he is running around picking up small objects and throwing them into the ocean.  As he gets even closer he sees hundreds of starfish that have been washed up on the shore, and this is what the young boy is picking up and throwing.  “Why are you throwing the starfish into the ocean?”, the man asks the boy.  The boy replies, “The sun is up and the tide is going out, and if I don’t throw them in they’ll die.”  Upon hearing this, the man looks up and down the beach and says “young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish everywhere.  You can’t possible make a difference!”  At this the young man bends down picks up another starfish, throws it into the ocean and says “I made a difference for that one.”

Picking up the scroll and reading from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus says, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  What miracles will God accomplish through you this Christmas?  What miracles are you willing to undertake?  Christmas is about a miracle, but miracles don’t just happen they are born, just as Jesus is, through labors of pain.  We are the mean’s to bring about God’s change in the world.  We have the power to do amazing things, we have the power to create miracles both big and small because the spirit of the lord is upon me, and it upon you, it is upon all of us, to preach the good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  The power of the lord is upon us to be miracle workers this Christmas season.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.