Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Blue Christmas: It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Here is my sermon for our Blue Christmas service:

It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you "Be of good cheer"
It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

Except for many of us it’s not the most wonderful time of the year.  People may indeed be telling us to be of good cheer, but let’s be honest and say that we want to smack some of them upside the head, because we can’t.  and how could we be?  The season is not made for those who mourn, those in pain, those suffering loss, those who have no idea what the future will hold.  Everything around us is telling us that we should be joyful and cheerful about how wonderful the season is, how marvelous  the lights and the decorations are, and that if we would only try, if only we would make an effort, that by focusing on the other stuff we could forget everything else we are going through.  We should focus on having a merry Christmas and a happy new year, but how can we when merry and happy might not even be part of our vocabulary?  And let’s be honest that in this moment, it is not the most wonderful time of the year.

Ghost of Christmas Future

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 1:39-55:

For the past two weeks we have been looking at Christmas through a lens provided for us by Charles Dickens in his classic story A Christmas Carol.  In the story, Ebenezer Scrooge, who approaches Christmas, and really everything in his life by exclaiming famously “bah humbug”, is visited by four ghosts.  The first is the ghost of his former partner Jacob Marley, who is forced to carry the chains of his misdeeds in his life around with him for all of eternity.  Marley comes to warn Scrooge that his fate will be the same unless Scrooge makes changes and that he should heed what the ghosts who come to visit have to show him.

The first ghost is the ghost of Christmas past who helps Scrooge to remember a different time in his life when he didn’t approach everything as simply an economic exercise in which to make, or save, as much money as possible and when he approached life with excitement and verve.  He is also shown the process by which he had become the man he is so that he would understand what changes could be made so that he could become someone different and not face the same fate as Marley.  It was important for him to understand that who he was, was not who he had to be, that he could make other decisions in his life that the past neither determined the present nor the future.

The second, the ghost of Christmas present, showed us the hyper-consumption and consumerism that affects how we celebrate Christmas today.  And we highlighted the fact that most of us want Christmas to mean more for us and we worry that we have gotten caught up in everything else and have forgotten the reason for the season, but because we can’t quite figure out how to make our celebrations more meaningful we focus on trying to make society’s celebrations more Christian in order to compensate.  And so we begin focusing on things which, I believe, distract us and distance us from truly understanding what the birth of Christ means for the world.  Everyday more than 20,000 children around the world will die as a result of malnutrition, war and water-borne illnesses, problems, most of which, could be solved with a fraction of what we spend on Christmas every year?  And so we heard Jesus, quoting from the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, and it is upon us as well, to proclaim the good news to the world, and I posed two questions for us to ponder, and those where what would we gain if we stopped celebrating Christmas and what would we lose if we stopped celebrating Christmas.  The answer to those questions, I suggested, would help us to realize what was truly important in our own Christmas celebrations which could lead us to potentially celebrating Christmas differently this year and creating new traditions for the future.  And that leads us to the last ghost, the ghost of Christmas future, or as Dickens says, the ghost of Christmas yet to come.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ghost of Christmas Present

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 4:14-21:

Okay, we’re going to start with a trivia question.  We’re talking about Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, so does anyone know the Christmas carol that is sung in the story? It’s God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.  But we have begun using Dickens’ ghosts of Christmas as a lens through which to view our journey through Advent to Christmas.  Last week we looked at the Ghost of Christmas Past who takes Scrooge, appropriately enough, into the past to see a different vision of Christmas, a time in which he enjoyed the season and all that it brought, and we saw that the past does not determine the future, that the present and the future can also be changed, if we are willing to change.    Much of what we know as the “traditions” of Christmas were invented fairly recently, and that includes the laments about what Christmas has become and the cry to try and practice Christmas differently.
The next ghost that Scrooge encounters is that of Christmas present.  If you’ve ever read A Christmas Carol or seen a movie version, you may remember that the ghost of Christmas present is a large jovial fellow who is surrounded by piles of food and signs of abundance.  Even the ghost’s lamp is in the shape of a horn of plenty or a cornucopia.  If Dickens were to write the story today, this ghost may stay the same because he can be the symbol of the over-consumption which is so prevalent in Christmas present, but there is also a warning in this ghost’s visage.  Because even though he is jolly and laughing and surrounded by abundance, we are told that around his waist “is an antique scabbard, but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.”  Reminiscent of Jesus’ injunction not to put up our treasure where moth and rust will consume and where thieves can break in and steal, but instead to put our treasure in heaven.  And then Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  And I think it’s critical to note that Jesus does not say where our heart is that’s where our treasure is, but instead that what we treasure is where our heart will follow, that our treasure doesn’t follow our heart, but instead that our heart follows our treasure.  Definitely something to keep in mind this Christmas season.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Ghost of Christmas Past

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Mark 1:1-8:

I want you to think of one of your favorite Christmas memories?  I’m willing to bet that most of them do not involve a gift you received or even a gift you gave?  This is going to be true even if you are thinking of childhood memories.  Sure there may have been a bike, or some other special gift that really stood out, but most of our favorite memories of Christmas are about experiences we had, of time spent with family and friends, maybe it’s decorating the tree, or eating the meal, or a special visit to Santa, we might remember opening presents when we were a children, but not actually remember most of the presents themselves, even for the most recent Christmas.  Could you name 5-10 presents you received last year?  I’ve had awhile to think about it, and I couldn’t do it, and I can only remember what the girls got because I looked at the pictures.    And yet, even though we can’t remember the gifts we receive, even though most of our best Christmas memories have nothing to do with gifts given or received, we are constantly told that Christmas is all about gift giving, that it’s about going to the mall, and buying as many things as we can because if we don’t then our loved ones won’t be happy this Christmas, will think that we don’t really love them, and our children will grow up and turn into old scrooges, they’ll end up in counseling blaming us for their problems because we didn’t get them whatever the hottest gift is this year. Yet, even though we know these things aren’t true, year after year we keep doing the same thing.

In Charles Dickens’ classic story A Christmas Carol, which greatly impacted the creation of our modern understanding of Christmas and its attendant celebrations, the main character Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by four ghosts.  The first is his former business partner Jacob Marley, who, covered in chains, comes to warn Scrooge first of the dangers if he continues to live his life as he has, and second to tell him of three more ghosts who will come to visit him during the night.  The first ghost is, appropriately enough, the ghost of Christmas past, who comes to help Scrooge to remember and to learn from the past, so that he can move into the future.  Because it turns out that Scrooge wasn’t born a scrooge, well actually he was since that is his family name, but that he was not always the person we associate with being a scrooge.  Following the ghost’s and Isaiah’s lead, we are going to prepare the way and make our paths straight to prepare for the coming of the Christ child, to try and free ourselves of some of the chains that fetter us so that we can come to see Christmas in a new way.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Gettin' Some Cold Cuts

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 1 Corinthians 1:3-9:

I hope that all of you had a wonderful Thanksgiving Day and thought long and hard about what we are thankful for this year, but while hopefully this year’s celebration was wonderful, I’m sure that all of us have some story about Thanksgiving not going quite right.  But whatever stories we might have, I think that Mary Clingman can beat us.  For you see, Mary has been a receiving calls on the Butterball Turkey hotline for more than 30 years.  She recounts the time that a woman called and asked what she needed to do differently to cook the turkey at high altitudes, when asked how high she was, the caller said, the 32nd floor.  Or there was the woman who called to say that her kitchen was on fire and wanted to know what to do, she was told to hang up and dial 911.  Then there was the person who called and asked if the yellow netting and wrapping should be removed before cooking.  The answer is yes.  But I have to say my favorite was the man who called to ask if their frozen turkey was still good.  When asked how long they had had it, he said it was at least five years, but they couldn’t really remember.  Had it always been kept frozen, she asked, no, he said, they had moved once and then there was the time that the freezer stopped working, so it had probably at least partially defrosted a couple of times, after being told him that the turkey probably was not good and should be discarded.  The man said that’s what he had figured, so he was glad he had given it to a charity.  Or maybe Thanksgiving is more like a post from Ann, who lives in Miami, Ohio; she said “Thanksgiving horror stories?  I have none.  I find the key to family holiday success is buying as much wine as you think you need, and then doubling it.”

Thanksgiving is the time in which we gather together to be reminded of the things we are truly thankful for and appreciative of, which certainly includes our families and friends, we eat too much watch a little football and simply try and just enjoy the day.  It’s really one of the truly few days in our culture in which there is not a push to be out working more or working harder; we are actually encouraged to take some time off to enjoy the important things in life.

Of course one of the great ironies of Thanksgiving Day, although I also think it’s also quite appropriate for our culture, is that on the very day in which we pause in order to give thanks for the things we have in our lives, on the day in which we say that we are happy and content, or at the very least on the day in which we are supposed to say that we appreciate the things that really matter, which is not our stuff, is the very day in which we now go out to buy all the things we just said we were happy without.

It is estimated that approximately 140 million Americans will go shopping this weekend, that’s a little less than half the population, and the American Retail Federation estimates that we will spend 617 billion dollars in November and December this year, up about 4% from last year.  The CEO of Macy’s said that while their marketing studies show that people say they don’t want stores to be open on Thanksgiving Day, that our actions don’t match that, and sure enough there were an estimated 15,000 people waiting to get into the Macy’s in New York City when they opened, Walmart reports 22 million shoppers on Thursday, and Target said they were selling 1800 televisions a minute on Thanksgiving.  And then of course there are the fights and other events that take place during the Black Friday rush.  One of my favorite lines from Black Friday was following a shooting in California several years ago in which one parent wouldn’t let go of the Tickle-Me-Elmo doll, of whatever was the hot seller that year, in which the newscasters said after reporting it, and I could not make this up, “but don’t worry, shopping was not interrupted.”

Now some of you may be thinking or wondering why it is that I am talking about Thanksgiving when we are now two days past it and quickly making our way towards Christmas, and the reason is because what we do on Thanksgiving and its aftermath says a lot for us about Christmas and what we truly consider important, and it was really summed up by an article that appeared in the London Telegraph which began “If you thought Hallowe’en, Father’s Day and Starbucks were terrible American commercial confections, invading our high streets and calendars, then prepare yourself for another US takeover: Black Friday.”  Apparently although Black Friday has been taking place in America since before world war II, it’s a very new phenomenon in England, having been first introduced by a store owned by Walmart last year, but taking off this year, with many of the same thoughts and regrets that we have, and coming to this conclusion: “The arrival of Black Friday from the US… confirms how Christmas, once a Christian festival – and largely a German one at that – has taken on an irretrievably Stateside materialistic sheen.” (Harry Wallop)  And just to show you were it’s going, Visa estimates that they will be doing sales of £360,000 per minute, although I have no idea how much that actually is, a 22% increase from last year.  So we’re even corrupting the uptight British, and apparently they aren’t happy about it, although some are thrilled with all the deals they are getting.

Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians, as he does most of his letters, with a salutation that includes a thanksgiving.  But notice something very important about what Paul says, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given to you in Christ Jesus.”  That is he is thanking them for their faithfulness in some ways, but who Paul is actually thanking is God.  He is giving thanks to God for them, and thanking God for what God has given to them, including God’s grace, but also for the spiritual gifts that they have received.  And Paul does not say if you have every spiritual gift, and a flat screen TV, or that $99 Xbox, then you will be truly happy and truly blessed.  Instead Paul says that they have already received everything they need, they have already been enriched in God and that God will strengthen them to the end, a phrase that should sound sort of familiar after what we have been talking about for the past few weeks.  But notice also that what they receive, what we receive, is a gift.  Can we earn a gift?  No, it’s given freely, and thus when we hear in advertising that we will get a free gift, that’s a redundancy, because if you have to pay for it, it’s not a gift.  But a gift is freely given without cost, and it is what we receive from God, and we know that why?  Because God is faithful.

So we are called not merely to give thanks, to pause and appreciate what is going on, but we are called, following Paul’s example, of giving thanks to God where everything begins and ends, because God is the alpha and the omega.  The problem is that most of us are not really good at giving thanks.  That is that we might say things we are thankful for, but they’re sort of superficial, or the things that we know we’re supposed to be thankful for, and we don’t really pay attention to the other things that happen to us or are around us every single day, that we overlook or totally take for granted.  Our preschool program had posted the things that the kids in the classes were thankful for.  And what I always like about listening to kids is that there is the total unexpectedness of being appreciative for the things we never even think of.  So one child said they were thankful for Spiderman.  A fine answer.  Another said that they were thankful for cows.  Not one I would think of, but a good answer.  But the one I loved the best was the child who said they were thankful for balloons.  How wonderful is that?  And balloons are really wonderful things, but how many of us would really every think to give thanks for balloons?  Those are the things we overlook.  What if we didn’t approach life that way?  What if we really appreciated the small things in life?  What if we approached every single day as a miracle and noticed and celebrated all the things that happened?  What if we were in fact more like Ickey Woods?
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How different would our lives be if we got excited and celebrated silly, simple things in our life, even things as simple as getting’ cold cuts?

In Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl, a survivor of the holocaust, wrote about one afternoon when the men had all walked back to their barracks after their day’s labor.  They were lying in their beds, exhausted and sick after having spent the day in a cold rain.  Suddenly, he says, one of the men ran into the barracks and shouted for the others to come outside.  Reluctant to leave their beds, but hearing the urgency in the man’s voice, they staggered outside.  They found that the rain had stopped, and although dark heavy clouds still hung in the sky, the sun had broken through and was reflecting on the puddles of water on the floor of the courtyard.  “We stood there,” Frankl said, “marveling at the goodness of the creation.  We were tired and cold and sick, we were starving to death, we had lost our loved ones and never expected to see them again, yet there we stood, feeling a sense of reverence as old and formidable as the world itself.”  There were obviously lots of things that Frankl and his other prisoners could be worried about and focused on, and they were, until someone brought them out of it and they stood in awe at the beauty of creation.

In an experiment at the University of Michigan, researchers found that students who kept a “gratitude journal,” a weekly record of things they feel grateful for, achieved better physical health, were more optimistic, exercised more regularly and described themselves as happier than a control group of students who kept no journals but had the same overall measures of health, optimism, and exercise when the experiment began.  In another study researchers found that people who describe themselves as feeling grateful to others, and either to God or to creation in general, tended to have higher vitality and more optimism, suffer less stress, and experience fewer episodes of clinical depression than the population as a whole.  This result held even when researchers factored out such things as age, health, and income – equalizing for the fact that the young, the well-to-do, or the hale and hearty may have more to be grateful for.  In other words, expressing gratitude can not only make you happier but can make you healthier, and the reverse is also true, that worrying can literally make you sick.  No wonder Jesus tells us not to worry and to be like the birds and lilies of the field.

Some of you may have heard about the appreciation challenge, in which you list the things you are thankful for for a certain number of days.  Well I am going to challenge us to do that for the next 25 days, to list out the things we thankful for so we can realize that Christmas is not our birthday, that it’s not about the presents we will receive or even that we may give, but instead about what we have already been given and to give thanks to God.  And so in your bulletin you will find a sheet to help you do that, and I invite you to share it on our Facebook page or on Twitter, or in other places.  I’m also going to warn you that the first few days will probably be easy, and we’ll list the things we know we’re supposed to be thankful for, but then it will get harder because we have to concentrate on appreciate other things like our ability to get cold cuts or for balloons.  And let us always remember that we are not giving thanks for things, because that places the emphasis on the object, whatever it is, but instead we are giving thanks to God who provides for us, so that when we come to Christmas we can truly once again appreciate the greatest gift that the world has ever received, because God so loved the world that he gave us his only son that whoever believes in him shall not die but have eternal life.  I pray it will be so my brothers and sisters.