Sunday, December 24, 2017

How is that possible?

Luke 1:26-38   New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)   

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[a29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
How many of you here have played Mary in a Christmas Pageant?   I did, although not at my own church. My Girl Scout troop did a Christmas program the year I was in 5th grade and since I was the only one with long, straight, dark hair, I was chosen to be Mary.   My mother made me a beautiful blue robe and pinned a white cloth on my head like a veil, like all the pictures we had of Mary.  I felt so special, to be chosen to play Jesus’ mother.   

Mary is special, in so very many ways.  She has been revered by Christians since the beginning, as we can tell just from the fact that Luke’s includes her story in his Gospel.  She encounters an angel.  Now many people in the Bible have had encounters with angels, but most of those angels aren’t named.  Mary however, is approached by not just any nameless angel, but the Angel Gabriel, who had previously appeared to the prophet Daniel and the priest Zechariah.   He greets her as “favored one” and goes on to tell her that because she has found favor in God’s eyes she will bear a child who will rule the Israel forever.   This hasn’t happened before.  Other women had been told they would bear a son, after having been childless - Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah, and Elizabeth.   And like Mary, they were told their sons would be special, chosen by God for great things - prophets, priests, leaders, the father of nations, even.  But all of these were married women, struggling with infertility, and none were told their son would rule Israel.  Mary would have known these stories - well, except for her cousin Elizabeth’s story, and Gabriel tells her that one.  And she would have wondered how on earth this was supposed to work for her, since she wasn’t yet married.  We all know the story - we tell it every Christmas.  But over the millennia this story led the Church to revere Mary in ways that no other human is revered.  

In 1854, Pope Pius IX proclaimed the immaculate Conception, saying “the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin.”  In 1950, after experiencing a vision in which Mary spoke to him while he walked in the Vatican gardens, Pope Pius XII proclaimed the Assumption of Mary, saying that “the Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”   No other human was born without sin.  And according to scripture, only one other, the prophet Elijah, ascended bodily into heaven.     And although these particular beliefs about Mary are not scriptural, many Christians believe them to be true.

Unfortunately, Mary has also been used by the Church to teach women to be mild and self-effacing, and to allow themselves to be guided in all things by men.  She is presented as the example of the perfect woman, pure, meek and obedient in every way.   And yet, that isn’t really the way the Bible portrays her.   Nancy Rockwell, in an article titled, “No More Lying About Mary,” (  points out a number of things that would contradict the image of Mary as meek and mild, or even as a traditional woman of her own time.  Unlike most other women portrayed in Scripture,  she isn’t engaged in any household chore at the time the angel appears - or at any other time she appears in Scripture.  Frankly, we don’t know what she was doing when the angel appeared, but later she will usually be portrayed as traveling or visiting someone, even attending a wedding, but not in her own home.    When Gabriel tells her that God has chosen her to bear this special child, she doesn’t agree right away.  She wants to know how that will be possible, since she isn’t married.   She knows what could happen to her if she is known to be pregnant and unmarried - she could be stoned to death.  She knows that God is asking her to literally put her life on the line.  It is reasonable, if a bit bold, that she should stand up to this terrifying creature and ask him, “How is that possible?”  She doesn’t agree until Gabriel tells her about her elderly cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy and assures her that with God all things are possible.  And then she replies, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

A meek and mild Mary wouldn’t have been God’s first choice, I don’t think.  She was going to have to face great difficulties - traveling in the last days of her pregnancy, fleeing into exile in Egypt, raising a son who she knew would be special but having to keep that all to herself, his death, and all that happened in the years following his death.  No, God was going to need a strong woman, a self-reliant woman, a faithful woman, to do all the things that lay ahead for Mary.   Just giving birth for her was going to be more difficult than for her contemporaries, most of whom would at least be in the comfort of her own home.  Not Mary.  Nancy Rockwell said of Mary,  “She gives birth in a barn, lies down with animals, and welcomes weathered shepherds in the middle of the night. She is determined, not domestic; free, not foolish; holy, not helpless; strong, not submissive.” (Nancy Rockwell December 3, 2017

How is that possible?  Mary’s story is about faith.  She is told that she has been chosen to walk a certain path, she accepts that path and proceeds to walk, no matter how frightening or potentially dangerous that path might be.   Many of us here have been at a point in our lives when we know what it is we are supposed to do, but we have no idea how that’s going to happen.  During Bible Study Wednesday night we shared stories of things that had been obstacles, things which might have kept us from doing what we believed God wanted us to do, how we had faith that God would bring us through - and how God did bring us through.  If God really wants us to do whatever, then it’s going to happen no matter what obstacles got in the way.  There is a prayer form known as, “Name it and claim it,” in which you proclaim that the thing you need has already happened, and it’s just a matter of walking forward into a future in which that thing exists.  I’m not entirely comfortable with that in every situation that comes up, but there are times when “name it and claim it” is appropriate.  If I believe that God wants me to do something in particular - like, be a minister, or a teacher, or a music therapist - then I must also believe that God will give me what I need to surmount any obstacle in my way.    

“If God brings me to it, God will see me through it.”  When everything seems to be going sideways, when troubles and trials seem to be outnumbering the blessings, this helps.  No matter what is going on in my life, God will be there with me to help me walk through it.   For Mary, this thought probably became a way of life.  In the very near future, she was going to have to deal with a confrontation with Joseph, and probably her parents, and then the whispers of her neighbors.   Who is going to believe her if she tries to tell them that the child came from God?  Only Elizabeth.  Joseph would require angelic intervention.  There would be times, I suspect, when Mary wondered, “Why me?  Why couldn’t He have picked someone else?”  Like, maybe when Jesus decided to stay behind in Jerusalem the year he was 12.  But you know, I don’t think that happened too often.  Because if 10 year old me felt so much awe and wonder at being allowed to play the part of Mary one Christmas, with a plastic doll taking the part of baby Jesus, I can’t even imagine what the real Mary must have felt when she held the the Christ Child in her arms.   I think that no matter what came her way throughout her life, that awe and wonder must have been constant, because she knew that the child, the boy, the man, who came from her body, was truly the Son of God.   

Tonight, a Child will be born to us, again.  Tonight, new life, new meaning, will come into the world, again.   Tonight, we will be reminded again that nothing is impossible with God, for the Child is coming.   Therefore, let us be like Mary, and go forward from this place knowing that All things are possible with God.   Let us lift up our voices, our souls and our hearts, to give Glory to our God.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

How to build a Christian

 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24   (NRSV)

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets,[a21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.
23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
It is Advent - a time of waiting and anticipation.   It is a time of looking back to the birth of the Christ and looking forward to his return.   Paul wrote this letter to the church in Thessalonica at a time when they were dealing with uncertainty and not a little fear.   This letter is almost certainly the earliest of the letters, the earliest Christian writing that we have available to us today, and yet already there was confusion and uncertainty.  Paul and all the other leaders of the Christ followers had been so sure that Jesus would return soon, next week or maybe the one after.  They had gone out from Jerusalem to carry the Good News to as many people as they possibly could reach before the end of days arrived . . . and here it is some twenty years after the resurrection and he still hasn’t come.  In this letter, Paul comforts his people, telling them that just because it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen.  He counsels them to faith and patience, and reminds them that God, the one who called them, is faithful.  Meanwhile, all around them are people who chase after wealth and pleasure, whose only care is for themselves, whose lifestyle and attitudes could easily tempt these young Christians away from their new life in Christ.  He  urges them to remain faithful, and to behave always in ways that will encourage others to respect them, and perhaps even emulate them. 

This may sound silly.  I play a game called Township on my iPad.   It’s a city building game.  We each have our own Township - mine is Parsonville - and players form co-ops to compete with other co-ops in growing crops and manufacturing goods.  Each person in the co-op can see what everyone else is doing as far as completing tasks and we help each other to complete their tasks. I like helping people so I help, a lot.   And it didn’t occur to me that I was doing anything different or that anyone was even paying attention until last week, when for some unknown reason, our co-op went from 8 members to 30 in a day or so.  One of the new co-op members said something about how she liked that we all help each other, and one of the established members said, “I just keep trying to catch up with Parson, but no success so far.”  As the conversation continued I became aware that my willingness to help everyone had spurred others to quietly compete with me.  They all want to be the leader in helping!  I think that is so cool.  What if my co-op members go out into the real world looking for ways to help others without fanfare or reward?  That would be even more cool.  

That’s kind of what church is for, you know.  We come here to worship, first and foremost.  But we also come here to learn how to live in the world while being somehow apart from the world.  We come to learn how to help and do good things, without fanfare.  Like the people of Thessalonica, we live in a time when social norms are all about getting attention, and acquiring stuff, getting the best of others in every situation, seeking pleasure even at the expense of other people, looking for someone to blame when stuff goes wrong, even looking for the worst in others instead of the good.   For anyone who thinks that this kind of ugliness is a modern phenomenon that only happens on Facebook . . . did you know that early Christians were thought to be baby killers and cannibals?  Yes.  People heard that they shared the body and blood of their dead God, and decided what that really meant is that they stole babies and ate them at their worship services.  They also thought that Christians were incestuous - people heard them calling each other brother and sister and talking about loving one another and immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion.  It wouldn’t have been hard to get up a mob with torches and pitchforks - or stones - or crosses - with rumors like those making the rounds of the city.  Persecution of groups of people generally  happens because falsehoods are told that create fear and incite hatred.  Even today.

Paul was well aware of the dangers his people faced.  He, himself, had been stoned, beaten, imprisoned and otherwise persecuted for his preaching.   He had been lied about and heard mobs call for his death because of things said about his actions and his preaching that were totally untrue.  So he gives them a list of admonitions.  A list of ways to live their lives in Christ.   
Rejoice always.  We spoke of this at some length last month, when our focus was on gratitude.  Even when things go wrong, there is always something to be grateful for, or rejoice about.  I presided at a memorial service yesterday, and there is a reason we call them Celebrations of Life.  Even when grieving the loss of husband and father, brother and friend, there are funny stories to share, joys to lift up about that person’s life.  Rejoicing, even then, is possible for the Christian.  

Pray without ceasing.  You know, I used to wonder how this is possible.  How can I pray without ceasing if I am supposed to be working or driving - ok, scratch that one.  I pray while driving all the time!  But how can one do that?  You can do that if you make your life a prayer.  If you offer your entire life, everything you do all day, to God.  And then there is popcorn praying, which I something I tend to do. If I think of you during the day, I will pray for you at that moment.  Usually just a quick “God bless them,” or “Thank you, Lord, for putting them in my life today,” kind of prayer, offered up on the spur of the moment.  In this way you don’t get to the end of the day and realize you forgot to pray today.  Because you did, in fact, pray without ceasing.  

Give thanks in all circumstances.  Again, gratitude for everything, even the bad stuff.  Pain makes me ask for help - and I am really bad at asking for help.  So I become grateful for the pain, because it forces me to do what I know God would prefer for me to do. 

Do not quench the Spirit.  No matter what, let the Spirit have her way.  Inspiration comes from the Spirit - new ideas and aha moments.  Don’t let tradition bog you down, as it did for the Pharisees of Jesus time, but allow new ideas to flow through and catch fire in your hearts,  like the wind and flames on Pentecost.

Do not despise the words of the prophets.  Just as in Paul’s time there were disagreements between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians about the importance of the Law and Prophets to followers of Jesus, even today some Christians think that only the New Testament is relevant to Christian faith.  Yet Jesus was a Jew. He preached from the words of the prophets.   Paul spoke of the lineage of Abraham coming to the Gentiles by adoption through the Holy Spirit.  Our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, whom we have come to know and to love through the teachings of Jesus, his son.  So we must respect and try to understand the words of those whom God sent to prepare the way for the Messiah - the prophets.

Test everything, hold fast to what is good.  Not all preaching and teaching will be in accordance to the will of God or God’s Spirit.  So when you listen, test the words in your heart.  If you feel that the preaching fits the teachings of Christ, then accept it. If not, do not accept it.  Not everything that you hear will be of God. Sometimes it will be driven by the personality or agenda of the teacher.  So test everything.  (In other words, just because the preacher says it, doesn’t mean you have to believe it.  That’s one of my favorite things about the Disciples of Christ.  It is one of the things that attracted me here in the first place.)  

Abstain from every form of evil.  This isn’t as easy as it sounds.  There is so much that could be considered evil - gossip, jealousy, acting out in anger, greed  - all of those sins that seem to be part of the human reality.  Consider everything you do before doing it, and choose the good.  Always, choose the path of love, compassion and mercy.  

Have you ever been to a Build a Bear workshop?  I think building a Christian might be a little like building a stuffed animal.   We take a body, and there are so many different kinds of bodies.  And we fill that body up with stuffing - teachings to help it develop faith.  Some will develop a faith that seems "Soft & Cuddly,” some will seem more "Hard & Firm," but most will fall "Somewhere In Between.”  Into each will go a heart, and each heart will be a little different.  Some have a heart for the poor.  Some have a heart for animals.  Some have a heart for the hungry, or the elderly.  Some hearts focus on sharing musical gifts.  You might not know what you have a heart for just now.  But you’ll figure it out.  And then we add the outer stuff - clothing and accessories for the stuffed creature translates into the way each of us lives our faith differently.   No matter what each one ends up looking though, each one is loved so much by its Creator.  Each one is different, and precious and beloved.

And so the Thessalonian church grew.   Each Christian grew in faith and strength.  And they waited, just as we still wait, for the return of the King - for the coming of the Lord.  Paul assured them, and us, that Jesus would return.   

Christians all, your Lord is coming.  Let us sing out our faith in the one who called us, for he is faithful, and will do as He said he would do.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Are you ready?

Isaiah 40:1-5, 11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep.

Are you ready for Christmas?  Don’t you just hate when people ask you that?   NO, I’m not ready.  Do you have any idea what all it’s going to take for me to be ready?   The silliness of some people!   Don’t they know that December is the busiest month of the year in the church?

Take yesterday, for example.  Here, in this building, we had four different events going on.  Early in the morning, Pastor Josue’s congregation met to pack food boxes to take out to the barrio.  Meanwhile, downstairs Jane Ono and friends were setting up for a Holiday Bazaar to benefit the Relay for Life, while Vonnie and I were up here getting ready for the Community Church Open House.  After those events ended, there was time for a breather before the final rehearsal for the Community Choir Christmas Cantata - and then the performance, which was awesome, by the way!   Meanwhile, our CWF Esther Circle met and collected soap and shampoo for the Selma Convalescent Hospital, there was a performance of the Nutty Nutcracker at the Arts Center, and families could get free Santa pictures in the park.  Those are just the things I know about - I’m pretty sure there was more going on here and there around town that I don’t know about or forgot.   

Usually when people want to know whether you are ready for Christmas they are asking about things like, are your decorations up?  How far along are you on gift shopping?  Are you baking?  How’s that coming along?  Family dinner plans going well?   Did you get your cards out yet?   (My answers are Yes, I have purchased 1 gift, I made cookies for yesterday and I think people liked them, I don’t have a family, and Cards?  I set them out on my desk and that’s where they sit.  Again.  As usual. *sigh*)

But I don’t really think of Advent and Christmas in quite those terms.  Oh, I know that is what most people are thinking of, but I’m one of those odd people who live by the Church calendar.  I select outfits for church based on the color stole I will be wearing in any particular season.  I often have to be reminded about National Holidays.  In December, when everyone else is looking at end of year stuff, and Christmas of course, I am living in a New Church Year, and preparing for the new thing God has already done for us and still has in mind for us.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.

When I was reading this passage during the week I happened to remember  something I saw once. I visited some people in West Virginia one time, who lived on top of a mountain.  As I drove up a very curvy, steep, scary mountain road, off to my right I could see HUGE earth movers building a new highway to ease the journey through the Appalachian mountains. . . They were absolutely the biggest machines I have ever seen before or since.   And it looked like they were driving straight up the side of the mountain, as they leveled and smoothed it.   

It had to be a really difficult road to build, because it went up the side of a mountain.  And the mountain was made of rock - not the easiest substance to dig through.  And yet, those huge machines were running up and down the side of the mountain as if they were on a plain.

At this time of year we think mostly about preparing our homes and workplaces and churches for the celebrations to come.  For the parties and dinners, for Cantatas and Concerts and Christmas Eve services.  We think about finding ways to give to our community, making donations to Selma Cares and the Salvation Army and the Selma Convalescent Hospital, serving food at the Christian Cafe, and all the other ways we try to help others at this time of year.   This is all good and important.  And all of this keeps us so busy . . . John said to me last night that he has no idea how he did all of these things before he retired.  But there is more to do.   The whole making straight the way of the Lord - that’s an inside job.  

Yes,  the penalty is paid in Christ.  Yes, our sins are forgiven.   But just because we are forgiven, we don’t get to just sit back and coast.  We can’t just pray to be made new and have our life change.  We have to do the work of changing ourselves.   Because making straight the way of the Lord happens first.   Then we see the Lord’s glory.  Making straight the way of the Lord is not about following certain rules or adhering to particular sets of beliefs.  It’s about becoming new people, different people, preparing the way of the Lord in us, in our hearts, in our minds.  We become new people by digging out our own sins and defects of character, - judgmentalism, jealousy, hatred, greed, envy, fear - all of those things that keep us from having peaceful hearts, just as the earth-movers in West Virginia dug out the rocks and debris that were in the way of a straight highway.  And replacing those things with virtues like acceptance, love, generosity, willingness.  As we do this, we begin to change, and those changes show on the outside.  When the changes are made, we can know peace in our hearts.  We can experience serenity.   We become the kind of Christians hymns are written about, who are known by their love.   Once we have changed ourselves, we are better prepared to change the world.  And make no mistake, It is our job as Christians to change the world, to heal it, to make it into the Beloved Community that God so desires for us.  

We begin changing the world by learning to accept others where they are.  Not coming up with the right arguments to persuade them to our way of thinking, but working on really understanding where they are coming from.  Finding out why they feel or believe what they do.   Finding out what our real differences are.  And then trying to find a point where we can have conversation and begin to understand each other.  In today’s climate of division, fear, and hatred, that seems like an almost impossible task.  But it is our job to try, to do our best to be reconciled with each other so that all of us together can be reconciled with God.  We have to be willing to try to understand the other, to listen to each other, really listen.  This is difficult.  Most of us listen just long enough to figure out how we are going to respond.   Even after listening and coming to a place where we have some understanding of each other, we still may not be able to agree.  But we don’t have to agree.  We simply need to be able to live together peacefully.  

Because, you see, if we can live together peacefully, if we can all learn to accept one another as beloved children of God, then much of the anger and animosity that is present in our world will go away.  I know.  Wishful thinking on my part.  But I believe in miracles. I believe that we are capable of creating the Beloved Community.  I believe that a day will come when no one need fear walking alone or driving while Black or being transgender. I believe that a day will come when slavery is ended everywhere forever, and all people truly have equal rights.  I believe that one day we will live in a world where the hungry can be fed, the sick can be healed, the lonely and bereaved can know they are loved.   I believe that one day, when the way of the Lord has been made straight, the Glory of the Lord will be revealed and we will live in the Peaceful Kingdom, here on the earth.

Today’s Good News, my sisters and brothers, is that the time is near.  It is the beginning of another new year in Christ.  It is time to once again read the prophets and hear their words, follow their directions, be the people Jesus, our Lord, calls upon us to be.   It is time to change, to prepare the way for the Lord, for the day of the Lord is upon us.   Let us go from this place, willing to change ourselves, and our world. Let us go forth, to proclaim the Good News, speaking words of comfort to all the people of God.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Waiting - hopefully

 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 NRSV

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Happy Advent!  It is the beginning of a new season.  Turkey comas are a thing of the past, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are, thankfully, behind us.  The air is filled with Christmas music and my neighbors seem to be competing in the annual “Highest PG&E bill at the end of December” contest.   Bushes, trees and the eaves of houses are weighted down with miles and miles of lights, while projected light displays play on the fronts of homes.  It is not at all uncommon to see Nativity scenes sharing yard space with Sponge Bob Santa, Rudolph, and the Grinch.   Likewise, in some municipalities religious symbols share space with more secular decorations.  For example, for many years the center of the traffic circle in Old Town Orange displayed a Nativity Scene, a giant lighted Menorah, and a Santa house.  I haven’t been there in a while, so I don’t know for sure whether they still do that.  But it’s pretty common to see both Santa Christmas and Jesus Christmas in decorations in homes and public spaces.   And no  - there are not two different Christmases, just two different ways of focusing on and thinking about the holiday.)  In other countries and cultures, the birth of the Christ and the gift giving day are completely different - often gifts are exchanged on St Nicholas Day, December 6, and Christmas Day is strictly a religious holiday.  But in the U.S. we do it all at once.  So it’s really no wonder that we get Jesus and Santa confused sometimes.

Not at church, though.  At church we only do Jesus Christmas. 

I must admit, when I first saw the decorations in our church this year I was a bit taken aback.   To me, it looked like a mixture of Jesus Christmas and Santa Christmas in the sanctuary.   We have trees and ribbons and toy soldiers and reindeer and family pictures and a fireplace . . . and Advent candles and greenery and wreaths . . . all in one place.  It was disconcerting, at best.   It is not churchy.  And everyone knows that we can only have churchy stuff in church.  I know that I can be a bit rigid about churchy stuff - like the colors we decorate in for the different seasons, and using Advent music during Advent, and so on.  

But  there are a couple of things that I know. I know that rigidity is not a good thing.  I know that when we say “We’ve always done it this way,” or “We’ve never done it this way.” that we are saying we are unwilling to consider different ways of doing things, that we are stuck in the what used to be, and not ready to head into what is coming.   Those two phrases have been the death knell for entirely too many congregations.  So I started to think a bit more about the decorations that we can see all around us today. 

I don’t know about you all, but I learned about Mary and Joseph and the birth of the Christ Child and the Magi and shepherds and angels and all of that at home, from my parents, probably in front of the fireplace in our living room, with its mantle covered in family photos.  One of our favorite Christmas activities was setting up the Nativity scene in the living room, and telling the story to each other again.  Even playing the parts as we set each character in its place. (Not Baby Jesus, though.  He didn’t get set out until Christmas morning.)  I learned about Santa from them, too, and later I learned how to “help” Santa.  You know, like the way we all help Santa - and Jesus -  by bringing in canned tomatoes and toys to be distributed to families in need by Selma Cares.    We, the people of this congregation, think of ourselves as a family.  Our gathering here together is a family gathering, and maybe we can think of this space as kind of God’s living room. We call it God’s House, after all.   So maybe, maybe this living room up here isn’t such a stretch after all.   Maybe it’s good to be reminded that Jesus Christmas is in our homes as well as in our church. 

One thing that this lovely display surely reminds us of is waiting.  That’s what we do during Advent. We wait, and prepare, and hope.  Some of us are waiting to see what will appear under the tree on Christmas Day.  Some are preparing for the cantata and for welcoming visitors to the Community Church Open house and for all the many events going on in town over the next few weeks - not to mention family dinners and parties at work.  And all of us, hopefully, are waiting and preparing for the coming of the Christ.  Not the child. We will celebrate his birthday, of course, but we know he has come. We know the story of his birth and his ministry, his death and his resurrection.  What we are waiting for now is for his return, for that day when all will be set right. What we are working toward now, is the setting right of the world, as we are directed to do by God.

As I thought about how we wait and hope for the return of the Christ into the world, I happened to think of this little dog.  Generations of music lovers will recognize this picture as the logo for RCA Music since 1899.  “His Master’s Voice” was painted by English artist Francis Barraud, who noticed that the little dog he inherited from his brother Mark loved listening to recordings of Mark’s voice.   I have seen cats and dogs respond the same way to answering machines when they hear their human’s voice coming out of that little box.  Nipper the dog is fascinated, listening to the voice of his master even though he cannot see him, even though he has gone and not returned - yet.  He is hopeful, always, because that’s just how dogs are.

We have heard our Master’s Voice, and no, we can’t see him anymore than Nipper can see Mark Barraud.  We know that our Master, Jesus the Christ, has left this earth.  But we also know he will return, because he promised that he would.   We wait and we hope, but we cannot just wait passively.  While we wait, we must be about the work of setting the world right.   According to N.T. Wright, in his study guide for the book of Acts, “The gospel is all about God putting the world right — his doing so in Jesus, his doing so at the end, and his doing so for individuals in between, as both a sign and a means of what is to come. . .we are the people in and through whom God is putting into effect the setting right that happened in Jesus, and anticipating the setting right that will happen at the end.” (pg. 110) 

The putting right of the world, our part in it, is simply following the directions Jesus gave us.  It is done by simply obeying the two greatest commandment, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  (Matthew 22:37b-39)  The putting right of the world means ending oppression and injustice, caring for the sick and wounded, especially those wounded by church or by people in positions of power.  One of the ways we can engage in putting the world right, just this minute, is in listening to and believing the victims of rape and assault and harassment who are coming out in public for the first time - female and male - who are gaining the courage to stand up to their abusers.  Or sharing our own stories with others.  It means telling those in power that some things simply are not acceptable, and that they can no longer get away with behaving however they want just because they are authority figures or celebrities.  

We must do these things because Jesus told us to do them.  In Matthew 25:31-40, Jesus said that blessings will fall upon those who treat everyone as if they are he.    ‘Come,” he said, “you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him,‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[g] you did it to me.  Doing these things puts the world right.  Doing these things prepares the way for the return of the Christ.   These are the things we, Christians, are called upon to do - all the time.  

And so we wait - hopefully.  We have heard our Master’s voice, and like Nipper, we wait hopefully for his return.  It could be today, or tomorrow, or in another one thousand years.  As Paul said to the church in Corinth, “ the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—  so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We do not know when that time will be, but we wait hopefully, working to set the world right, strengthened by our knowledge of Jesus, and by our obedience to his teachings, and we pray for him to return, saying “Come, O Long Expected Jesus.”