Sunday, December 25, 2016

Welcoming the Light

Isaiah 9:2-7 (NRSV)

2 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.
3 You have multiplied the nation,
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as people exult when dividing plunder.
4 For the yoke of their burden,
    and the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
    and all the garments rolled in blood
    shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 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,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Once upon a time, back in the 1960s, 7-11 ran a radio commercial featuring a guy who worked at 7-11.  He bragged about how wonderful it was to have a store opened from 7 am till 11 pm 364 days a year!  They were only closed on Christmas.  (This was kind of a first because, for those of you who may not know this, once upon a time there was no such thing as a store being open 24 hours a day.  Even gas stations closed up in the evening.  Pretty much everyplace closed on Sunday. Maybe truck stops stayed open, but that was about it.)  Then there was a pause, and he said rather plaintively, “But what am I going to do on Christmas?”

That conversation has been going on around places where ministers gather, too.  Because this year Christmas comes on a Sunday, so the question has been, “Are you going to have worship on December 25th?”  It seems that some of the very large churches are closing (again) so the staff can spend the holiday with family.  And I’m thinking that there wouldn’t be any need for family celebration if not for the birth we celebrate on this day.  So, why not worship today?

I mean, it is the day the light entered the world.  When we look at pictures like the one Leah chose to illustrate today’s message, our hearts fill with song.  There are so many songs that spring to my mind . . . O little town of Bethlehem, Silent night  . . . what songs do you think of when you see this?
(wait for someone to sing Rudolf . . .)  

Turning toward the screen, where I “expect” to see a scene of Bethlehem under the star, only to see Rudolf.  “Leah!  What is this?  I thought we were going with a more traditional look this year?”  Silliness continues for a moment.    Then . . .putting on my Santa hat . . .

All righty, then.  What do we know about Rudolf?
He had a very shiny nose - he was different.
The other reindeer laughed at him and called him names - he was bullied
They wouldn’t let him play with them - he was excluded.

I wonder  …  when Montgomery Ward first published the Rudolf story in 1939, do you suppose they were thinking about the bullying and exclusion of people who were different?  Because this has been reality for probably as long as there have been people.  Today, of course, people can get in trouble for bullying.  People who are different are protected by the laws of the land.  But back then, and forever before, people who were different in any way were often, usually,  mistreated.   It’s sad to see that reality reflected in a children’s story that has been repeated for almost 80 years!  But here comes the good part.

“Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say, “Rudolf with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?’”  

Santa saw Rudolf’s shiny nose, not just as something different, but as a gift that could be used to help him, and the other reindeer, and save Christmas!  No longer something that made Rudolf stand out in a bad way,  “Now all the reindeer loved him!”  

Confession time.  All that fun with the Rudolf picture - Leah and I planned that.  We even made sure a lovely Bethlehem scene was in the PowerPoint distributed to the folks who help make sure we don’t have too many mistakes so everyone would be surprised. You see, my friend Danny Bradfield, Pastor of Bixby Knolls Christian Church in Long Beach, posted on Facebook a few days ago that he would be using this story to talk about accepting differences.  I loved it, and immediately told him that I would be sharing his idea with my own congregation.

Because this story, the way it turns out, is a teaching story, one we can all learn an important lesson from.  We might need some really good reason to change our minds about someone who looks or acts or speaks differently than we do, or who comes from a different place, or who follows a different faith tradition.  But when we look for the gifts that come with those differences, we will stop rejecting them, stop excluding them, stop bullying them, and accept them as equals.  

Jesus was also different.  It is possible, even pretty likely, that some of the children in his home town of Nazareth teased him, if their parents had been counting on fingers when he was born.   And as if that wasn’t enough, when he was only 12 he posed such intelligent questions to the priests and lawyers at the Temple that they marveled!  Which is a truly great thing, but probably didn’t make him any more popular among his peers.  I wonder if the boys in Nazareth excluded him from their games, as the reindeer excluded Rudolf.  

Rudolf and his shiny, glowing nose lit the way for Santa and the other reindeer that Christmas Eve, bringing light into the foggy night so that all the children of the world could get their Christmas Eve visit from Santa.  And that was a wonderful thing.

Jesus brought the light of God’s love into the world, and that is a great thing.  Jesus is the light of the world, bringing God’s love and peace into the darkness of sin and sorrow, opening hearts, healing souls, easing pain, instilling hope.  Let us fill our hearts with that light, singing praises to our God, and accepting all others as God’s beloved children, no matter how different they may be.  

Let us welcome the light, rejoicing in the birth of Jesus, the Christ.  And let us take that light out into the world with us, so that every one may know that the Christ is born, the light is come to take away the darkness, God’s love has entered our world.  

Sunday, December 11, 2016

What She Said

Luke 1:46b-55  (NRSV)

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”


Once upon a time . . .  That’s how some of our favorite stories begin.  Either that or “It was a dark and stormy night.”   In the Bible there is really no standard formula to begin a story, but some of the best stories begin with, “Now in this particular place there was living a woman whose name was (blank) and she was barren and without children.  Her husband loved her very much, even though she bore him no sons.”    Sarah was one of those women, remember?  And in her old age she became the mother of Isaac, whose son Jacob was the father of the 12 tribes of Israel.   Elizabeth was one of those women, who also had a son in her old age, who we know as John the Baptist.  And Hannah, the mother of Samuel, last of the judges, first of the prophets, he who put both Saul and David on the throne of Israel.  

Hannah is one of my favorite characters.  Greatly loved by her husband even though childless, she was teased and tormented by his other wife, who had borne many sons.  Hannah’s husband tried to convince her it was ok, he would always love her.  But he didn’t have to live with that other woman the way Hannah did, you know?  She prayed for a child in Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept - because the Temple wasn’t built yet - and was so distraught and emotional in her praying that Eli, chief priest at the time, thought she was drunk.  But after speaking with her, he assured her that her prayer had been heard.  And truly God had heard her prayer, because she soon became pregnant and gave birth to a son who she named Samuel, which means Name of God.  Then she vowed to give him in to the service of God as soon as he was old enough.  When he was weaned, she took him to Eli and gave her son into his care.  Every year she would go and take Samuel a robe she had made for him, and she was rewarded for her faithfulness with three sons and two daughters.  I love that story, truly.  

But the best part of the story, in my mind, is what Hannah said after she took her young son to Eli, after she gave up her first born child into the service of God.  After taking her son to Shiloh
2 Hannah prayed and said,
“My heart exults in the Lord;
    my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
    because I rejoice in my victory.
2 “There is no Holy One like the Lord,
    no one besides you;
    there is no Rock like our God.
3 Talk no more so very proudly,
    let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
    and by him actions are weighed.
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
    but the feeble gird on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
    but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
    but she who has many children is forlorn.
6 The Lord kills and brings to life;
    he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
    he brings low, he also exalts.
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
    he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
    and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
    and on them he has set the world. (1 Samuel 2:1-8  NRSV)

If you were paying attention during this morning’s scripture reading, this will sound familiar to you, because Mary pretty much repeated what she said.  

God has done great things for me, and my heart, my soul, exult in Him, magnify Him!

There is one very significant difference between the two stories, of course.  Hannah was receiving something she had desired for many years.  Her life was miserable before Samuel’s birth, and blessed afterward in ways that are considered normal.  She was no longer teased or tormented by the other women.  On the contrary, not only had she had a son, but she dedicated him to God!  That’s a big deal, and something the other women would have admired her for - especially once she had another son.  Mary, on the other hand, was young, at the very beginning of womanhood.  She wasn’t even married yet!  Once she was known to be pregnant, once other people began to count on their fingers, there would be teasing and tormenting. There would be whispers when she took her jug to the well in the mornings, where the other women were gathered.   She ran the very real risk of Joseph putting her aside, even of being stoned to death for her infidelity.  Her life was about to get very difficult.  Gabriel had said to her, “Do not fear.” But even after the angel had left, even after she had agreed to what God was asking of her, Mary had every reason to be fearful.

When she went to visit her much older cousin Elizabeth, however, she was greeted with the words, “Blessed is she who believed!”  Blessed is she who believed that what God said would happen actually would happen. Remember Sarah?  Remember how she laughed at the messenger from God when she was told she would have a son in her old age?  She didn’t believe.  She disbelieved so completely that she convinced Abraham to conceive a child by Hagar.  But Mary, she believed right away.  And Elizabeth knew this, because God’s messenger had been speaking with her, as well.   But believing you are doing the right thing doesn’t always take away the fear of doing something new and different.  

Believing God is with you in that new thing, now that’s an entirely different proposition.  The meditation in our Advent book from Tuesday said, in part:  “I am afraid” is a sentence.  “I am not alone” is a song.  “God is with me” is the chorus to that song. 

We have been hearing that song and that chorus in the stories that Alan and Christian and Jessica have told us during this Advent Season.  I was afraid, they said, but God was with me, and all is well now.  We all have fears to face, sometimes big ones, sometimes small ones.  I’m driving to our regional office on Wednesday for a meeting with the Committee the Ministry Recognition and Standing.  I’ve never been to San Ramon.  I’m not sure what traffic or parking will be like. I don’t know anyone on the committee.  I am prone to panic attacks if I get lost - hence my great love for Siri!   I really don’t want to go, because I have all these little fears, but I know I am not alone.  God is with me.  (And Siri.)  

But there is a lot more to Mary’s song and Hannah’s prayer than just, “the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name!”  There is also a very detailed description of God’s relationship with God’s people, more than just this one woman who is being blessed above all women.  
Mary said:   
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.

And Hannah said: 
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
    but the feeble gird on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
    but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
    he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
    and inherit a seat of honor.

The proud are cast down, the poor are made rich, the weak are made strong, the needy are given what they need.  This is who our God is, and we are his hands and his feet in the world.  Mary said: “His mercy is for those who fear him,” not in the, “I am afraid of God because God will punish me forever” kind of fear I was raised with, but more like awe - the kind of fear you might feel in the midst of a thunderstorm, looking out from the safety of your home watching the lightning strikes, seeing its tremendous power, but knowing yourself to be safe.   God’s mercy is for those who know his true power, and lift up their hearts and lives to God, who dedicate themselves to doing God’s work in the world.  God’s mercy is for those who walk through their fear of him, of whatever change they may be facing in their lives, knowing that God is with them, and that they will be ok, no matter what.

Mary said:  “He has helped his servant Israel,  
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

And we are among those descendants, because we are the sisters and brothers of Jesus, the Christ, the son of the living God, the child of Mary.  

As we go forward into the days and weeks ahead, let us remember what she said.  Let us celebrate God, not just for what has been done for us, but also for what God does for all of our brothers and sisters in the world, for what God does in the hearts and minds of those who fear Him, those who worship him, those who need him in their lives.  And may the love of Christ, which surpasses all understanding, fill our hearts to overflowing, that we may truly be God’s hands and feet in the world, now and always.  Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Peaceful Kingdom

Scripture:   Romans 15:4-13 (NRSV)  

4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
    and sing praises to your name”;
10 and again he says,

“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;
11 and again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
    and let all the peoples praise him”;
12 and again Isaiah says,

“The root of Jesse shall come,
    the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I know that we didn’t use the peaceful kingdom scripture, but I am in the enviable position of being able to see what is behind you all - an entire pew filled with woodland creatures, some of whom would normally eat the others with great joy, but because it is Advent, because it is the peaceful season, these natural enemies co-exist in peace, in honor of the birth of the Christ Child.  

There’s a story I love to tell during Advent that talks about this season, the time when all the world is at peace with each other, even predator and prey.  Some time back two children were hand raising a orphaned baby lamb.  On Christmas Eve there was a terrible snow storm, and the children kept running back and forth to the barn to make sure the baby was ok.  On the radio they heard that a ferocious lion had escaped from the circus train just a mile or so away and that made their worries even more intense.  Just around midnight they went to the barn one more time, and much to their horror, a giant lion was curled up in their barn, with the lamb nestled between its paws.  Before they could do anything or even call for help, the lion spoke.  “Please let me stay with my small friend and keep her warm tonight. For we are both alone, and need comfort.”  And the lamb said, “May Peace be on everyone’s heart, for this is the night when Peace came into the world.”   There are so many stories about animals talking at Christmas.  It is said that God gave the gift of speech on Christmas Eve to animals as a reward for being in the stable when the Christ Child was born, worshipping him even before any humans knew who he was.  

And so, here we sit, with a whole pew full of woodland creatures watching and perhaps, participating in our worship.  Including a Santa Bunny . . .

There are those of us who tend to think of Christmas decorations as rather frivolous, maybe even sort of irreverent.   Last week I noted that Advent Purists might object to some of the decorations we see in and around our sanctuary and promised I would tell you about the symbolism behind some of these decorations this week. What I didn’t tell you is that I have been one of those Advent purists until now.  I realized last Sunday, as I looked at the beauty that Jeffrey and his helpers have created in this space, which is so far beyond what I considered “appropriate” for church that I really needed to re-think my previous position.  Why not celebrate this gift of beauty inside a church?  Part of the reason I promised to tell you all about the symbolism of the decorations was to remind myself that all of it reminds us of the Holy, not just some few pre-approved symbols.  So here we go.

Evergreens -  As the only trees that do not lose their leaves in winter in cool climates, evergreens symbolize perseverance and resiliency to adversity.  They remind us of Jesus' words, "The ones who persevere to the end shall be saved."   We use evergreen trees and branches to decorate our homes and churches and stores and streetlights. Candles that smell of various evergreen trees fill our houses with the smells that mean Christmas to most of us.  

Garlands.  In ancient times, holly and ivy were considered signs of Christ’s passion. Their prickly leaves suggested the crown of thorns, the red berries the blood of the Savior, and the bitter bark the drink offered to Jesus on the cross.  

Ornaments.  People used to hang apples and other fruits in their Christmas trees, to symbolize the fruit of the Holy Spirit.  Round ornaments came to replace the actual fruit, but continue to remind us of those blessings we receive as a result of our faith.  

Christmas Trees.  For those who wonder, yes, Christmas Trees began life as pagan symbols during their midwinter celebrations.  But when St. Boniface converted Germany to Christianity, he also converted their solstice trees to a symbol for paradise because they were always green, a reminder that in Christ they have eternal life.  It wasn’t until the 16th century that they began to see these trees as specific to the celebration of Christ’s birth.   There is a story that Martin Luther, while walking home one night in Advent, noticed his torch light reflecting off the ice on a pine tree’s branches. It reminded him of Christ’s birth bringing light into a darkened world, so he broke off a branch and carried it home, where he adorned it with candles.  Whenever you see a lighted Christmas tree, let it call to mind the One who brings light to our darkness, healing to our brokenness, and peace to all who receive him.

Wreaths.  Because the needles of pine and fir trees remain green from season to season, the ancients saw them as signs of things that last forever.  Isaiah tells us that there will be no end to the reign of the Messiah. Therefore, we hang wreaths of evergreens shaped in a circle, which itself has no end, to signify the eternal reign of Jesus, the Christ.

Candy Canes.   The candy cane is shaped like a shepherd's crook, reminding us that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, came into our world at Christmas. The red stripe symbolizes Christ's sacrifice and the white background His purity.  It may have been invented by a candy maker in Indiana, or a priest in 17th century Germany, or have some other origin entirely. Sadly, says this isn’t true.  But I have decided to ignore Snopes in this particular instance, because …Christmas legends don’t have to be entirely factual, do they?  

Gingerbread men.  Just as we create Gingerbread men in more or less our own image, they serve as a reminder that God created us in the image of God.   

Tinsel.  There is a tale about a poor family who wanted to decorate a tree in honor of the Christ Child, but had no money for apples and other ornaments.  During the night spiders came and covered the tree is beautiful webs, which Christ turned to silver as a reward for the family’s great faith.  Tinsel reminds us that even when we think we have nothing of value to offer, Christ will accept us just as we are.  He values the gift of our hearts more than anything else.

Bells.  The High Priest of the Temple wore a blue robe with bells sewn to the hem under his ephod, which was worn only when conducting sacrifices to God.  Bells hung in our trees and rung everywhere are to remind us that Jesus is our High Priest, the one whose sacrifice to God is most holy.    

Advent wreaths.  The story I heard is that once long ago, a German priest became annoyed at the school children asking constantly, “How long is is till Christmas?”  So at the beginning of Advent he put candles on a cartwheel, one for every day between that day and Christmas, and lit one candle every morning when the children came to school so they could count the days for themselves and stop asking him.   As time went on, the Advent wreath got smaller, just four candles, one for each Sunday of Advent.  We light purple candles the first three weeks, and a pink one on the fourth Sunday to symbolize joy.  On Christmas Day we light the white Christ Candle in the center of the wreath.

And finally . . . my personal favorite, the giant Toy Soldier Nutcracker.  I am sorry, folks.  As hard as I tried, this one just doesn’t seem have any particular religious significance. The closest I can make it stretch is that the nutcracker toy soldier has been so popularized by The Nutcracker ballet that it eventually became a symbol of Christmas.  And, it is true that the toy soldiers did fight on the side of good in the great battle during the ballet, so I suppose we can stretch that into a sort of religious meaning - good triumphing over evil.  But that’s kind of a stretch.  Some of our decorations are simply decorative, I guess.  But if they make us smile, if they bring peace into our hearts for just one moment, I think that might just be reason enough to include them.

Researching and writing this message was a learning opportunity for me.  The thing I am learning about Christmas, well, about life I guess, is that there is always an edge that I need to stretch toward - a learning edge, if you will.  If I am so rigid in what does and doesn’t belong in church as decoration, especially at this joyful time, then I will also be rigid about other things that are very important to other people.  When we are rigid in our stances, whether it is about what decorations belong in the church, or any other thing, we cannot learn.  We cannot open our hearts to those things that have great meaning to other people in our lives.  I have learned from these decorations, and from the great joy that we all receive just looking around at them, that I have  a great deal still to learn, about a great many things.  Thank  you, Jeffrey, for being my teacher in this.

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.   

If we are to live in peace with each other, if we are to be like those woodland creatures on the back pew, and the lion and the lamb in that story I love to tell, if we are to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, if we are to be truly Christian, then we must open our hearts and minds to new and different. We don’t necessarily have to agree, but we have to be willing to listen, and try to understand where the other is coming from.  

When we leave this place today, let us go out willing to do our very best to live in harmony, to seek to understand the other, to openly share the love we receive from Christ with all those we may encounter.   Let us go out willing to learn new things, and to embrace new concepts, expanding our idea of what this Season is supposed to mean, so that we may all glorify God together.