Monday, November 30, 2015

Expect A Miracle

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Jeremiah 33:14-16:

Behold I bring you good news of great joy that shall be for all people.  A 32inch television for $75, an Xbox system for $299, ipad minis for only $199, Bose headphones for $75, kitchen appliances for just $9.99.  Does it get any better or more exciting than that?  And isn’t that what Christmas is all about, getting more good stuff and at such a great deal?  There is certainly an aspect of receiving at Christmas; after all it is the time we remember and celebrate the greatest gift the world has ever received.  But when did Christmas become like our birthday instead of Jesus’ birthday? The best sermon I ever heard was by the Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes, who was and is very influential in my ministry, and that day he was talking about the statement that it’s better to give then to receive.  But the series he was doing was about things we say, but don’t actually believe.  The same might be said about miracles.  We might say we believe in miracles, but we don’t act like we do.  We might pray for rain, but how many of us then start carrying around umbrellas?  We pray for miracles, but do we believe that a miracle will actually happen?
In the movie Grand Canyon, Mary McDonnell’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? Why was it so exciting for the Cubs to make the playoffs, or for the Royals to win the World Series? Because it doesn’t happen all that often and so we pay attention.  So instead of miracles being rare things, 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, but we never even notice they are there.

I think that might be especially true during the Advent and Christmas season, not because we intend to ignore them but because during this time 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 and the busyness of the season that we miss it all.  And indeed I feel pretty confident in saying that at least one of us has said “I can’t wait for it all to be over, and just hope to make it through.” And even if people promise a miracle we wonder how that is even possible.

That’s certainly what had to be going through the minds of the people who first heard the prophecy from Jeremiah.  A little biblical test, does anyone remember when Jeremiah is prophesying? It’s before, during and after the destruction of the southern kingdom, the destruction of the Temple and the taking of the leaders of Israel into captivity and exile in Babylon.  This is not a happy time for Judaism, and indeed it’s so traumatic that a large portion of the Hebrew Scriptures, and most of the prophets, are written during this period.  It’s a dark time, and people wonder, or doubt, what the future will bring and even whether God is still with them and Jeremiah certainly portrays that reality in his statements.  He is known as the weeping prophet, and we also get the term jeremiad, or an angry harangue, or a long, mournful list of complaints from Jeremiah.  But then Jeremiah also has these notes of expectation like we hear in today’s passage telling the people that God will not only give a future to the people but of fulfilling God’s promise raising up a branch from David’s line and “in those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”  This message of hope not only sounded like a miracle, it sounded like those miracles that we don’t actually believe in, and the ones that are simply impossible to have taken place.  How can Jerusalem be safe when it lies in ruins? How can someone rule from the Davidic line when there is no longer a kingdom, let alone a Davidic line? How can there be a miracle in the midst of all of this?

In 2009, Joanne Smith’s husband died suddenly and unexpectedly, just before Christmas, leaving her alone to care for their three children then ages 10, 12 and 17.  As you might imagine the Christmas season was neither holy nor jolly, and all the trappings had of the season were put aside.  They didn’t want to worry about Christmas, they were simply too concerned to just get by, trying to put one foot in front of the other, wondering what the future could possibly hold as their world collapsed around their ears.  But then 13 days before Christmas, they found a poinsettia on their front door, with a modified version of the first verse of the 12 days of Christmas, and it was signed “Your true friends.”  They had no idea where it came from, who the friends were, and Smith’s initial reaction was to throw the plant away.  But her daughter talked her into saving it, and they went on with their day.  But the next day, two bags of bows showed up, along with a new verse of the song, and on and on it went.  But the more presents they received, the more engaged they became, not just with each other, not just of trying to catch whoever was bringing them the gifts, but Smith says their own hearts began to thaw and they engaged with Christmas and with the possibility that what they thought was the end wasn’t the end at all.  They bought presents, and most importantly they began to interact with their family, friends, neighbors and coworkers, and began to give thanks to everyone who was important in their lives.  It was their Christmas Miracle.

Rev. Adam Hamilton says that he has probably prayed for more than 30,000 people during his ministry, and he can count on his two hands the number of miracles that he has seen in that time.  But I think that’s only true if we hold miracle to mean those things that science cannot explain, or the biggest most unexpected things.  But I think our understanding of miracles should be greater than that.  If you’ve ever seen a baby being born, or held a newborn, I believe you’ve seen a miracle.  I’ve seen people keep going and overcome things which should have crushed them, to me that’s a miracle.  When Sandy Books showed me for the first time that she could move her fingers, to me that was a miracle.  It was not a dramatic healing and return to perfect, but from where she had been and what I had seen happen it was a miracle.  Sometimes even someone seeing hope, or being offered hope, which is what Jeremiah is doing, which is also the theme of this first Sunday of Advent, can also be a miracle.

That’s really the miracle that happened to the Smith’s, because their husband and father was not suddenly returned to them.  The hole was still there in their lives, but they now saw something else, something different, that pain and sorrow were not the only thing happening.  But they still didn’t know who had been their “true friends” that made such a different that year, and as it would turn out, they wouldn’t know for several more years.  In her book, The 13th Gift, Smith tells of what happened that Christmas and what happened once it was all over.  The first was that they decided not to let the gifts end with them, they were going to pay it forward in their own way, in the words of her daughter, “Every day can be Christmas.”  But what they also needed to do was to thank those who had made a difference.  Four years later, their sister-in-law finally admitted she knew who the “true friends” were, and asking for their permission, she introduced Smith and her children to Susan and George Armstrong, who lived in a town not too far away, who had known her husband since he was in the second grade.  But that was not really why they did what they did.

Instead, the Smith’s were the 9th family who were grieving at Christmas to which the Armstrongs had played Secret Santa, delivering hope now to more than 22 families.  And they were doing it because someone had done the same thing to them when they had lost their infant daughter Andrea in September of 1989.  Christmas did not seem to hold anything for them that year other than pain and loss, and then 13 days before Christmas a poinsettia showed up at their home, followed by gifts for the next 11 days.  The Armstrongs reacted the same way the Smith’s did.  “I’d be feeling low, and then a gift would come and it would take my mind off our loss for a while,” Susan said.  The gifts brought joy well beyond Christmas and so they decided to continue the tradition to make a difference in other’s lives.  To bring new miracles.

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” Rev. 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 that says Christmas miracles.  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? What miracles will you see this year?

Loren Eiseley, wrote the story of the starfish, which most of you probably also know: One day a man is walking down by the ocean, when he sees someone else farther 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.”

To make change in the world, we must become the change that we seek.  It could be something 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.  Or it could be donating a teddy bear to our Beary Merry Christmas collection for the fire department to give to a child to help comfort them and give them some security in a time of anxiety, a time like our own Lee Anna had when she received a teddy bear from the fire department when she was involved in an accident as a child.  Or perhaps it’s giving books to children who are experiencing homelessness knowing that reading and being read to is one of the most important things and indicators of future academic success.

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 and as Paul says to us, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.”  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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