Christmas Brings Risks

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We aren’t particularly good at Christmas in the church. We have dressed it up with pageants, carols, and candlelight. We preach peace and possibilities and encourage people to linger for a moment at the manger and renew their acquaintance with the new born Christ. That’s all well and good, but we seldom hear a word about how dangerous a place that manger can be.

It should be clear enough from the moment Gabriel uttered, “Fear not.” In spite of these words everyone was afraid. Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds all responded appropriately to the frightful messengers who came bearing glad tidings. Even Herod was afraid of what was to come and he didn’t need a holy messenger. We leave out the fearful parts when we tell the story. And we do ourselves a great injustice.

The Christian story isn’t meant to be comfortable and fill us with sweet,  nostalgic feelings, not even the birth story or what follows after it. God’s love for humanity is powerful, messy, and life-altering. Yes, God came in human form to be one of us, to take on the fullness of humanity, and to show us that the worst in us is not outside the reaches of holy redemption. However, if we make it to Bethlehem to greet the sacred mystery that was born in the night, we risk being touched by that very same mystery. And when that happens, our eyes are opened to what we might have been able to shut out before meeting the Christ-child.

Matthew speaks of Rachel weeping for her children with the echoes filling the streets as Herod ordered the slaughter of all the children under age two. These sounds, joined with an angel’s warning, drive Joseph and his new family to safety in Egypt. One innocent life was spared, but Rachel’s weeping filled the streets and continues on to this day. Have you heard her crying for the unarmed Black men shot by police with no justice to be seen? Have you heard her crying for the millions of Syrians displaced and seeking refuge? How about for the Water Protectors whose pleas for the land go unheard? How about for the transwomen assaulted and murdered just because they are who they are? For the undocumented people who live with the threat of deportation? For the Muslim people who live in fear because they call God by another name? For the young women lured into sex trafficking? For veterans who wander the streets without home or hope? For the countless who are hungry, homeless, dismissed, victimized, and forgotten?

If you’ve knelt at the manger and been touched by the mystery there, then you can’t help but hear Rachel weeping and see innocents being slaughtered everywhere. Someone offered Jesus and his family sanctuary long ago. Who will offer sanctuary for today’s innocents? Who will step up and respond to those who weep along with Rachel for their lost children? Who will carry the good news of Bethlehem to those who so desperately need it?

Do you see the risk now? It’s not enough to just talk about making room in our lives once more for the Christ-child. It’s not enough to just sing carols and exchange gifts with our loved ones. Christmas is about changing the world. It’s about protecting the innocent among us. It’s about traveling a different road once you’ve encountered the mystery. It’s about living loud enough to bring love and justice into the world.

If we take the claim to be the body of Christ seriously, then we must embrace the entirety of our faith history. The church, the body of Christ, knows what it is to be a refugee and dependent on others for sanctuary. The church knows what it is to be innocent and under threat of death. The church knows what it is to be beaten and killed just for being who you are. We know these things and so much more because Jesus lived them. We also know what it means to bring healing and hope because Jesus did.

We can talk about the horrors of 2016 in terms of personal losses, terrorist bombings, natural disasters, celebrity deaths, and Aleppo burning. However, if we want 2017 to be different, it is up to us to embody that difference. If we are truly the body of Christ as we claim to be, then if one person is a refugee, then all are refugees. If one person is victimized, all are victimized. If one is homeless, all are homeless. If one is lost, all are lost. On the other hand, we can also embody hope, healing, peace, love, and justice.

The power and mystery that changed the world so long ago lies within the body of Christ today. Let’s make 2017 the year we embrace the risks of Christmas and truly be the church the world so desperately needs.

For more sermon help, try here.

RCL – Year A – First Sunday after Christmas – January 1, 2017
Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

Photo: CC0 image by Gerd Altmann

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Sally the Super Star: A Story for Christmas

SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU ARE PLANNING TO ATTEND THE 5:00 PM SERVICE AT LIVING TABLE, THIS IS THE STORY I’LL BE READING. IF YOU WANT TO SHARE THE JOY OF HEARING IT FOR THE FIRST TIME WITH THE KIDS, YOU MIGHT NOT WANT TO CONTINUE READING.

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Sally the Super Star

This story was written for use with small percussion instruments to be used as follows:
When the word “star” is said, bells jingle; “light” shakers shake; “brighter” clackers clack; “great” drums drum; and “super” thunder-stick thunders. And when “angel” is read, everyone is invited to say “oooo” and when “God” is read, everyone says “ahhhhh”

A very long time ago, in a far off place, a star was born. She was filled with a bright, glittering light. Her name was Sally. When God saw how simple and pretty she was, God gave her a special place in the night time sky. As Sally grew older, she didn’t think her place was so special.

“I want to shine brighter! I want to do something great! I want to be a super star!” Sally would say to anyone who asked and many who did not. She was not content with her place in the night sky. She was one star among many above a city filled with people who almost never looked up.

Sally thought her brother, Stanley, had the best job. He had a spot in the Big Dipper. You know that one star that’s sometimes hard to find, but you just know it’s there. Stanley was proud of his place in the constellation even if he wasn’t as bright as some of the other stars.

As the years went by, Sally was filled with longing. Sometimes her light wasn’t as bright as it could have been because she felt sad because she was an ordinary star, not a super star.

One day an angel of God was passing by and noticed Sally’s dim light. “Hey, what’s wrong with you little star?” the angel asked Sally.

Sally answered with a very sad voice, “I want to shine brighter. I want to do something great. I want to be a super star. And I’m not. I’m just a regular old star, hanging over a city full of people who never look up to see me.” All her old enthusiasm was gone. Sally had become a sad little star.

“Cheer up, little star! Pretty soon you will have a job to do,” said the joyful angel.

“How do you know?” said grumpy Sally, not really believing the angel knew what he was talking about.

“I am the angel Gabriel,” he said with pride, “and I have just come from a special mission God gave just to me.”

“Yeah? So what?” Sally wasn’t having any of Gabriel’s joy. “I’m Sally, just a dull old star. God put me right in this place. I don’t think a mission from God is all that special.”

“Oh, but it is! Just you wait and see. In about nine months you are going to be one busy little star. You really are! You’ll be brighter! You’ll be great! You’ll be super!” Gabriel sounded like he knew what he was talking about.

“How do you know?” asked Sally, her curiosity winning out over her grumpiness.

“Well, I said I was returning from a special mission that God gave me.” Gabriel looked at Sally, and Sally nodded as Gabriel continued, “I just got a girl named Mary to agree to bring God’s child into the world.” Gabriel said this as though he thought Sally would understand. She did not.

“What has this got to do with me?” Sally asked, a little irritated.

“Surely, you’ve heard about this child.” Sally shook her head. She didn’t pay much attention to the humans who never took time to look up and see her hanging out, lighting up the night sky. “Unbelievable!” Gabriel was amazed that Sally didn’t know what was going on right under her shiny little nose.

“This child has been talked about, promised even, for generations. He’ll be known as Emanuel because he’ll actually be ‘God with us,’ but his name will be Jesus which means ‘God is salvation’.”

“I still don’t know what that has to do with me!” Sally practically shouted. If she had feet she would have stomped them in frustration.

“Oh, Sally,” Gabriel said with a smile. “Sally, you were made for this. God put you in the sky for this. You have always said that you want to shine brighter, do something great, and be a super star. This will be your chance. So you better start gathering up all your light because in a few months you are really going to need it.”

Sally just stared at Gabriel. She still did not understand.

“Sally, you sweet little star. Don’t you see? People are going to need to be able to find this child. He’s going to be born in the city right below you. You do know that you shine right above Bethlehem, a city with quite a history, don’t you?” Gabriel watched and waited for Sally to grasp what he was trying to tell her.

Sally started to shine a little brighter. She was going to do something great. She was going to get her chance to be a super star. “Are you telling me that I’m going to be the one who leads the way to this baby that the world has been waiting for?”

“Yes, Sally, that’s exactly what I’m telling you. In a few months Mary and Joseph will travel to Bethlehem for the census. They’ll get there just in time for Jesus to be born. And then you will light up the sky so others can come and visit this child who will be light for the world.” Gabriel was pleased to see that Sally finally understood. Her job was going to be way more important than Stanely’s spot in the Big Dipper!

Over the next nine months, Sally gathered up all her light and concentrated on glowing brighter and brighter as the months went by. As her light grew brighter, she grew larger. By the time Jesus was born, Sally was the brightest and biggest star in the sky. And she stayed that way for a very long time.

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On the night Jesus was born, Sally watched as a whole bunch of angels startled shepherds who were caring for their sheep through the night. The angels told the shepherds to go and see the baby Jesus who was with his parents right below where Sally lit up the sky. Sally was thrilled when all the shepherds looked up and saw her shining so brightly. They followed her light to the very spot where Jesus lay in a manger.

All through that night and for many nights, people came to visit Jesus and leave him gifts. People came from far off, following Sally’s light. A group of magi (really smart and wise people) came and brought Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And Sally lit the way for them.

After a time, Sally noticed that she wasn’t shining quite as bright and she wasn’t  quite as big as she had been when Jesus was born. That was okay with Sally. She played her part. She really did shine brighter, she did something great, and for a little while she was a super star.

Somehow, that didn’t seem so important anymore. Sally realized that Jesus would outshine her. The light that baby would bring to the world was far more powerful than her starlight. Jesus would show the world how great God’s love really is.

“That’s okay,” Sally thought to herself. “As long as people remember why I lit up the sky, that’s what’s important. As long as they remember that Jesus is the Light the world really needs and they share that Light with each other, that’s all that matters.”

The Angel Gabriel happened to be nearby and overheard Sally. He said with pride, “Sally, my little star, you really are a super star! Maybe those little people down there will take a cue from you and do what they need to do to show the way to God’s Light and Love because the world needs more superstars!”

Sally laughed and said, “Oh, there’s lots of Light in the world. People just have to want to shine brighter, do something great, and be a superstar to light up their little places in the world.”

Sally and Gabriel smiled at each other and started searching through the nights for all those who will shine brighter, do something great, and be a superstar as they light up the world with God’s love.

RCL – Year A – Christmas Day – December 25, 2016

Proper I
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus  2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Proper II
Isaiah 62:6-12
Psalm 97
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

Proper III
Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98
Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12)
John 1:1-14

Photos: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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Defining Love

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I didn’t grow up knowing that I was loved. Affection and love were not often demonstrated in my family. I grew up thinking that you were lovable if you were good, perfect even. The idea that God loved me even though I was not perfect was something that I wrestled with well into adulthood. What I know now is that love is complex and hard to sort out because it is often mistaken for other things. God’s love is even more difficult for us to comprehend because it is so far beyond our capacity to imagine and, yet, not nearly as confusing as we human beings make it. The last week of Advent traditionally focuses on love, God’s love, and invites us to stretch the limits of our experiences and our imaginings.

Ahaz’s experience should have taught us a lesson about God’s love for humanity. It’s a lesson we need to attend to over and over again. Ahaz was a self-reliant, self-serving ruler who relied more on his ideas than on God’s wisdom and presence. He sought easy peace and assurances of his power while trading safety for security. He relied on human ways, forsaking God. He made alliances with Assyria for the protection of his kingdom only to have Assyria demand allegiance and claim power over Judah. Selling out your God and your people in the name of peace seems like a really bad idea. And it was.

And it still is. Fortunately for Ahaz (and for us) God’s capacity to love is not limited by human behavior. God continues to pour out love on the whole of creation even when we choose everything except love. In the case of Ahaz God did not abandon the people just because Ahaz had. On the contrary, God sent Isaiah to proclaim the day when God would regather all that Ahaz had given away and then some. I’m not sure Ahaz really heard a word the prophet spoke and I doubt he looked for any sign that God was in the midst of the devastation, working to bring about a new thing. I wonder if Ahaz learned anything about God’s love. I also wonder when we will learn that God’s ways are far more loving than our human ways.

Much of the world has stood silently by while Syria is destroyed. In the U.S. we have given our country into the hands of one who embodies white supremacy and endorses the rigid views of one branch of Christianity which endanger many who live on the margins. Like Ahaz, we’ve made a deal based on human ways while pursuing an easy peace. Some would say that we have also traded safety for security. It is safe for all people when we embrace the full diversity of those who live in the U.S. However, those with power feel more secure when they can maintain the illusion of a white, “Christian” nation.

It is hard to find a sense of God’s love while Aleppo burns, refugees are denied sanctuary, Muslims are threatened with having to register, immigrants are facing deportation, pipelines disregard treaties with First Nations people, and countless people live without getting their basic needs met. In Advent we anticipate and celebrate the love of God embodied in Jesus. This love is so powerful it breaks through all our human foolishness. This love broke into the world in an infant born to an unwed teenage mother and her carpenter fiancé in a smelly, noisy cave used to shelter animals. This love changes everything. It’s a love full of promise and hope, and it is for the whole of creation.

When I was young, I believed that love was supposed to be something sweet, simple, and easy and that there was something wrong with me when I couldn’t find that. The problem is that love is so much more than that, especially Divine Love. Sometimes it’s painful, complex, and difficult because it calls us to be more than we are without it. If we are still looking for something easy that keeps us secure, then, somehow, we’ve still managed to miss the proverbial mark. Divine Love embodied in Jesus of Nazareth is so much bigger than our traditions. Yet, we try to make it something we can grasp hold of and contain in a box, preferably on an ornate shelf, and take it down when we need something pretty to look at. This Love is not necessarily pretty – remember that birth and that death? It’s not easy – remember the escape to Egypt?. It cannot be defined, owned, or contained – remember the Resurrection which defied all the rules and expectations?

This Advent Love we proclaim wants more than empty adoration and nostalgic feelings. This Love wants to enter into our lives and transform us into the embodiment of Christ that we already claim to be. This Love is not a gentle, warm-fuzzy love so much as it is a refining fire that will strengthen and reshape us. This Love welcomes refugees, harbors those in need of sanctuary, demands peace where there is war, and does not accept silence in the face of suffering. This Love is tired of our human ways and really would like us to see the signs of God’s presence all around us and respond accordingly.

The Body of Christ can be so much more than it is if we learn what Ahaz did not. God is present in the midst of everything, even the utmost depths of destruction and pain, reaching out to us with a Love that is beyond our capacity to imagine. Isn’t it time we stop defining love and let Love define us?

RCL – The Fourth Sunday of Advent – Year A – December 18, 2016
Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Photo: CC0 image by Melanie

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Dry Socks and Hot Food

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Have you ever been camping out in the woods without benefit of electricity, running water, and other modern conveniences? If you have, then you know that the ability to light a fire and keep it burning is important, particularly if you get caught in a storm. Getting wet wood to catch and burn is tricky business. Success makes all the difference – dry socks and hot food.

I remember one hiking trip with friends in the Green Mountains because it rained four of the six days we were out. The first two days were perfect early summer days to be out in the woods. The last four were anything but. It started raining sometime during the second night we camped. No big deal; we all had rain gear. We did decide to camp in the same place for the next night and just explore the trails around where we were. So we packed up our gear and tied up things we were leaving for the day and went off through the wet woods. We came back to camp in the late afternoon only to find a bear using the food pack we’d tied up as a piñata. We backed off and waited for the bear to go on its way. No campfire that night.

The next day we packed up and continued on our way. The rain also continued relentlessly all day, very heavy at times. But we were young and had spent quite a while planning this trip so we were going on and counting on the rain to end. The next couple of days were increasingly uncomfortable. Everything was either damp or soaked through. Any fire we’d managed was weak and smoky. By our last night, we were cold, wet, and desperate for hot food. That’s when we discovered that we had one match left between the five us. We had used them all in previous days just trying to get a fire going enough to boil water for coffee. Now there was one match and all eyes turned to me. I was the one with the most camping experience so I could start the fire with the one remaining match.

We created a lean-to out of branches and tarps to provide a little shelter and cleared a spot for the fire. Then I searched out dry tinder and kindling. I carefully arranged the little would-be fire and took out the last match. My friends were gathered around in hopeful anticipation. One of them hummed “Rise Up, O Flame” so quietly the sound of the rain almost covered it. I took a breath and struck the match and lit the tinder. Then just as carefully I added more tinder, then kindling, and then small branches, and finally it was hot enough to put on a log. We had fire. In a few hours we had coffee, hot food, and dry socks. We were all back to telling stories, singing, laughing, and looking forward to our last day of hiking even if the rains continued.

This Advent is feeling a bit like that rain-soaked hike. The general attitude of folks isn’t all that different than it was among my hiking companions on that trip. It’s been raining for days and people are tired of damp sleeping bags, cold meals, and wet socks. They want a little relief from the pouring rain. And we’ve got one match left and a whole pile of wet wood. Fire might be possible but doesn’t seem very probable given previous attempts to get it going. However, if I don’t get it burning there are going to be cold, hungry, wet folks who aren’t very happy with me.

Over the last several days that same old camp song has been filling my head like a prayer: “Rise up, oh flame. By thy lights glowing. Show to us beauty, visions and joy.” Now that I think of it, this would be a perfect Advent candle lighting song. Is this not what we are watching and waiting and preparing for in this Advent season – a strong flame of beauty, visions, and joy?

I am being guided (or pulled?) through this season by the need to coax a reluctant flame into fire. At first, that little bit of tinder that catches is fragile and a well-aimed raindrop could put it out. With careful tending, though, it can grow until, little by little, the fire gains enough strength and heat to set even the dampest logs aflame.

When Mary sang her song, flames were rising in her and filling her with beauty, visions, and joy for sure. Her words were a continuation of those spoken by Isaiah generations before. There’s a Holy Way out there where the hungry are fed and the broken are made whole. Finding this Holy Way is possible for the oppressed as well as the oppressors. It is possible to walk the Holy Way with weak hands and feeble knees. It is possible even when earthquakes devastate in Indonesia, when planes crash in Pakistan, when geese die by the thousands in Montana, or when you’re camping in the rain.

This third Sunday in Advent, the Sunday of Joy, is to remind us that Joy is already present in our lives. Joy is that tiny flame that holds infinite heat and power when it is nurtured and tended properly. Joy keeps our feet moving on the Holy Way of hope peace, joy, and love when the world speaks only of grief, anger, despair, or hatred. We aren’t waiting for something that has not yet happened so much as we are calling ourselves to pay attention to what did happen, what is happening, and what will happen again and again.

We are a people in need of dry socks and warm food. We live in a world that needs us, the Body of Christ, to be the Holy Way where the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, and the oppressed are liberated. The only way we can possibly do or be any of this is to take time to carefully tend the fragile flame of joy. When we take the time and care to tend and feed it, Joy will become a fire that strengthens and warms us enough for us to continue telling our stories, singing our songs, and laughing over the simple pleasure of a warm fire while the rains pour down. Success makes all the difference…

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Rise up, oh flame.
By thy lights glowing.
Show to us beauty,
Visions and joy.

RCL – Year A – Third Sunday in Advent – Joy – December 11, 2016
Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:5-10
Luke 1:46b-55
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Top Photo: CC0 image by James DeMers
Bottom Photo: CC0 image by Fernando Espi

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Vipers, Adders, and the Promise of Peace

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When I was working on my doctorate, for a class project I created a map of wars for the preceding century. I don’t remember the specifics of the project, but I spent hours placing small dot stickers every place in the world that had been active in war. I had nightmares for weeks after discovering that the planet has not ever been free of war in recorded human history. Always, there has been war somewhere, often many somewheres.

As I sit here contemplating Advent peace, I hear my mother telling my high school self how privileged and spoiled my generation is because we did not know the impact of war. I didn’t know what she meant and she didn’t know that some of my earliest memories are of watching footage of body bags returning from Vietnam. In her certainty that my generation would have been more patriotic and more like hers if we had grown up with the damage war does, she was ignoring the fact that we were already shaped by the warring generations who had come before us. And she couldn’t have known how dramatically my experience of war would change, or how soon. A few months later was the Beirut bombing where the largest number of U.S. military personal was killed since Vietnam. It was stunning and horrifying. I knew young people who were Marines at the time. Friends of friends died in the bombing. I wondered how such a thing could happen…

Less than a decade later I watched the bombing of Baghdad on the news from a seminary dorm room. I sat in mute silence, wondering how we could possibly be at war. My mother was wrong. My generation knows more than its fair share of war, as has every generation of human beings. We are fortunate here in the U.S., though. It’s not very often war touches us closely and personally on a daily basis. Many of us are comfortable in forgetting that we are a nation that has been at war for fifteen years. We can entangle patriotism, nationalism, Christianity, and white supremacy without really questioning it because our cities and homes aren’t being blown up. And if we keep everything the way it’s been (whatever that means), then we’re safe from all that goes on with “those people,” you know, the ones who live “over there.” This distance, the forgetting, this tangling religion and nationalism makes it easier for many folks to blame refugees and bolster xenophobia. What happened to compassion? What happened to freedom of religion? What happened to caring for widows, the poor, the aliens among us?

Into these thoughts comes John the Baptist’s cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” The yearning I feel for the day the lion and lamb lie down together is strong enough to bring tears to my eyes. Yet, I suspect humanity is still more akin to a brood of vipers than inhabitants of God’s holy mountain. The more I read about increased suicides and hate crimes the more I think the adder and the asp are still in biting moods. The truth of it all seems to be that humanity is not willing to take the risk of peace. We are too fond of our illusion of control that war and weapons bring, to risk doing something different.

Yet, the Baptist’s cry echoes through this wilderness we have created. God’s ancient promise of peace lends strength and credence to the echoes. This call to prepare for the way of God really should not continue to be ignored. We must be the ones who prepare the way. We can’t wait for someone else to do it. We cannot reach out for peace with one hand while holding weapons of fear in the other. What will it take for us to slow down, hear the cries of the Christ-child in the far-off manger?  More importantly, what are we going to do to ensure that the Child comes into the world with such power that humanity can take a collective step toward peace?

Singing carols, exchanging gifts, and attending parties are all fine activities. They are a way to sooth our weary souls for a few minutes or a few hours at a time. Consider doing something else, too, though. What is God up to where you are? Go and do that. Who needs radical hospitality and unconditional love in your neighborhood? If we can do these things in our Advent waiting, then we might just find our way to Bethlehem to greet the Child. We might just find enough hope to believe that Peace is really possible.

“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.”

RCL – Year A – Second Sunday in Advent – December 4, 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7,18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Erika Sanborne

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Remembering Advent Hope

 

hopeHolidays bring on nostalgia for better or for worse. As I am preparing for Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow, I think of years past. Growing up, my family shared holidays with the family next door and anyone else who needed a place to go. One year budgets were tight so we ordered turkey subs and sat together on the dining room floor because we didn’t have a table big enough. Another year, one of the Persian kittens had crawled inside the turkey carcass as it sat thawing in the sink. Memories roll through my mind with each item I cook.

When I turn my attention toward Advent, the same thing happens. Good memories and less pleasant recollections. There was the arrival of the Sears Roebuck Wish Book and all the pretty things a child could desire. There was baking and candy making that started the day after Thanksgiving and continued every day until Christmas. Some years there would be an Advent Calendar to help keep track of the days. It all sounds good, but it was hard. My mother wasn’t a fan of the holidays even though she opened her house to anyone on Christmas day and baked more breads, cookies, and candies than she could give away, her unhappiness blanketed everything. The older I got, the more open she was about her holiday hatred. I was a few years into ordained ministry before it struck me how much I love the holiday season with a particular fondness for Advent.

Advent is really a time to look back as much as it is a time to look ahead with hope. The words of the prophet Isaiah speak to the bleakness of a time in Israel’s history and their need for the light of God. The ways of God were lost, or at least hidden, under swords, spears, and the learning of war. Isaiah issues a divine invitation to “walk in the light of the Lord.” No matter what is happening personally, or communally, or nationally, people of faith are invited to relearn the ways of God and walk on holy paths. Such hope-filled words!

For years now, I’ve thought of Advent as a time to refocus. It’s easy to get lost in the swords and spears and wars. We can be consumed by the anger, fear, and hatred that seem to be everywhere. We can easily give in and let bleak despair fill us. Advent is a time to raise our heads and look for God’s steadfast presence and take up the work of peacemaking and justice-seeking. The invitation issued by the prophet was not a passive one. It was an invitation to action, to movement, to learning. Herein lies the hope of the season.

The Romans and Matthew texts strengthen the invitation. Wake up and stay awake! The Second Coming remains a mystery to me, but I hear the message in these verses anyway. Today I’m inclined to think that Jesus shows up when we are busy, busy turning swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks. You know, speaking love in the face of fear. Joining forces with those advocating for equal rights and recognition. Essentially, Jesus shows up when we seek God in every other human face.

The urgency of these texts speaks to the belief that Jesus was due back at any moment. Today, the urgency is just as valid, even if for a slightly different reason. Many people claim to have accepted the invitation to journey to God’s holy mountain, yet they are unable to accept all who endeavor to do the same. This busywork we have invented for ourselves and plastered God’s name on is more about forging swords and sharpening spears than it is about creating ploughshares and pruning hooks. How is it possible to claim the name “Christian” and hate or look down on People of Color, LGBTQ+ folks, immigrants (documented and undocumented), refugees,  Muslims, Jews, women, people with mental illness, people with physical disbilities, and on down the list of people who are “other”? These are sharp, deadly weapons; make no mistake about it. Look around at where we have been and where we are. Does it really add up to a holy path where peace prevails?

I truly love Advent and I am moved by the hope in these texts. God has been our witness through times of despair and times of joy. God has watched us wander far and return to a holy path over and over again, throughout human history. The invitation issued by the prophet still stands. It is time to walk in the light of the Lord. However, we need to wake up and stay woke. We will never get to God’s holy mountain as long as we participate in fear and hatred. And we will surely miss Jesus’ arrival if we are not focused on the ways of love and justice for the whole of creation.

May the God of hope be with us all this Advent season.

(If you are looking for more sermon help, try here.)

RCL – Year A – November 27, 2016
Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Erika Sanborne

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Fear is Not the Answer

cemetery-1655378_1920.jpgAs is common, I received my first Bible in third grade at the end of my first year of attending Sunday School. It was the Revised Standard Version with a faux black leather cover. I carried that Bible with me for years. I used it college religion classes and even through my first semester in seminary. Now it sits on a shelf and is stuffed with fond memories. The caterpillar bookmark naming each part of the Bible and other Sunday School remnants, a copy of “A Child’s Creed yellow around the edges,” notes from mostly forgotten retreat weekends, and scores of underlined and highlighted passages.

Also tucked in the pages are a few colorful tracts with different psalms printed on them. Memories flood my being any time I pick up this Bible. Today I am envisioning one of those tracts, the one printed with Psalm 46. I remember exactly where it came from. I was 15 and hospitalized after I had overdosed. The Rev. John Williams handed it to me. The care and concern for me were evident in his presence and his voice. Equally clear is that he did not know what to say. So he handed me a few of these tracts and indicated that they might be helpful in some way. He said that he often gave them to “people in pain.” One of them was Psalm 46.

At the time, I didn’t pay much attention because I was as uncomfortable as John was, though for different reasons. It was late in the night when I read the words, “God is my refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear…” I remember sobbing and whispering, “God help me, please.” I was surrounded by fear, being consumed by fear, and I so desperately wanted to believe that God could help me.

Thirty-four years later I am confident that God heard my plea, heard it before I had the courage to whisper it into the darkness of the night. Many people have walked with me and embodied the love of Christ along the way. Yet, my life was governed by fear in those days. I was afraid of everything. At core, though, I was afraid I was not lovable or worthy of love. It was a long journey to get to the day when my life was no longer ruled by fear. I did, however, believe that God could help me overcome my fears because I trusted that God really did have the power to make war cease and lead people to peace.

Now I find myself living in a different sort of fearful space, a space filled with concerns and anxiety for the days ahead. Fortunately, I’ve had decades of experience acknowledging fear and choosing not to live by it. And I trust that God is still our refuge and our strength, still a very present help in trouble, not just personally but communally as well. When communities and nations give in to fear, chaos rules and it is a sure sign that we have forgotten to seek God and God’s ways.

It isn’t surprising that human beings give in to fear with almost predictable frequency. The real surprise is that God waits for us to turn from our human ways to God’s holy ways. God waits for ridiculous stretches of time and has throughout history. Eventually, we collectively remember that seeking God leads to more acts of kindness, more humility, more peace-making, and justice-seeking. When we open our lives to these things, fear diminishes. Fear always diminishes when confronted with love.

This is true when in the company of terrified, suicidal adolescents and it is true for frightened, hopeless communities. We who bear the name of Christ must endeavor to be a refuge and strength for those on the margins and at greater risk of violence and being told they are unlovable and not worthy of love. Yes, fear is real. Yes, it is powerful. However, when we turn to God’s ways we become capable of choosing actions that make room for hope, for love, and the possibility of new life.

RCL – Year C – Reign of Christ – Thanksgiving Sunday – November 20, 2016
Jeremiah 23:1-6 with Luke 1:68-79 or
Jeremiah 23:1-6 with Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

Photo: CC0 image by Karina Cubillo

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