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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

December 24, 2015

Gospel: Luke 2:1-20 
1st Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7
2nd Reading: Titus 2:11-14

I didn't have much of a tradition of watching Christmas specials when I was a kid, but it was important to Nick, so now we've introduced some of these to our child. One of my favorites is “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Apparently this show almost never made it to television. It used real children to voice the characters, something that just wasn't done. And it was too depressing! Those are two big reasons I love the show. If you haven't seen it recently, Charlie Brown just isn't in the Christmas spirit. It made it on the air because, the network paid up front for Charles Schulz to make the special, so they went ahead and aired it, even though they didn't like it. Of course, it turned out to be a huge success. It resonated with people.

We all like the story of an underdog, and that's why we like Charlie Brown. He can't do anything right. His friends are always picking on him. His dog is always outshining him. People give him rocks instead of candy to put in his Halloween bucket. His kite inevitably gets eaten by a tree. And he is often scowling or in a bad mood. Charlie Brown makes it ok to be grouchy at the holidays or any time, really. 

But Charlie Brown is also complex. He has his friends over for Thanksgiving dinner and he and Snoopy feed them popcorn and toast, the only two things they know how to cook. He gets picked to direct the Christmas play. He usually gets picked up on the shoulders of his friends and celebrated at the end of the show. He's a regular guy who has a lot of ordinary days, some bad days that he makes worse with his bad attitude, and some moments of pure joy. He is a hero that we can all relate to.

There had been a lot of hubbub the last week or so about Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” that he is inseparable from his blanket during the whole show. But when he gets to deliver his line in the Christmas play, “But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid, for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord,” for this line he drops his blanket. He doesn't need it anymore. Because of the good news of the Christmas angel, he is not afraid. This is truly good news that gives him confidence to deliver his line, but also to stand on his own without his security blanket for a moment. At a moment when most of us would be very afraid, during public speaking, Linus finds himself comforted by the good news of Christmas.

There are several profound moments in this special. The other, more famous one, is the choosing of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Charlie Brown is sent to get the Christmas tree for the Christmas play. Why they sent him, I have no idea. You'd think they'd know what to expect from him! Of course he goes and picks the most pathetic, needle dropping tree you've ever seen that bends to the ground when an ornament is placed on it. 

I love the symbolism. Charlie Brown, the underdog, chooses the underdog tree. He sees value in the unloved, the forgotten, the pathetic, and he brings it for the Christmas play, to redeem it and give it a place of importance. 

The one thing I hadn't noticed before when I watched it this year, is that Charlie Brown goes to choose a tree and they are all pink aluminum trees. That's what the Peanuts gang has sent him to get. Charlie Brown and Linus knock on the trees and they give that hollow thump with a bit of an echo, like the tin man when Dorothy thumps on his chest. Charlie Brown doesn't choose his little, pathetic tree from among many green and stately ones, he chooses the only “real” tree in the place. 

God could have chosen brighter and shinier, tidier and more grand, the more expensive and modern, and that's what everyone expected from the Messiah—that the Son of God would live in a castle and be protected and wear fine clothes and eat rich food. Instead, he was a real person, like us. Maybe that's the part of Christmas that really gets us. Jesus was found instead in a manger, a feeding trough among the animals, born in a stable. The Gospel says, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Another word for sign in the Gospels is miracle. In the book of John, Chapter 20, verse 30 it says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples.” He performed miracles, in other words. “This will be a miracle for you, that you will find the child lying in a manger.” It was a miracle to find a child in a manger. The shepherds would have no doubt which child it was. Children don't belong in mangers. Even more of a miracle is that the Son of God would be found in a manger. Maybe to us it sounds cute and cozy, but truly this would have been a pathetic place to try to bring a child into the world, a pathetic place to be born, but very real, and very down to earth, an indication of where Jesus would be found throughout his whole life. 

Jesus was often found where he wasn't expected to be, in the synagogue teaching at 12, at the Jordan River expecting to be baptized by John, among the lepers, among women and children, among the pathetic and small, among nobodies, among criminals, among the dead. He was seldom where he was expected to be and the same goes for this age, too. We find him in the pay it forward shops and soup kitchens. We find him wearing rags and sleeping in the elements. We hear him on the phone, he lost his job, his kid is sick, would we happen to have some extra food for his family. We think of him, far from home this holiday, suffering from grief this time of year, thrown out by his family after coming out of the closet, small and discounted, weak and tormented. But this is exactly who Jesus came to be and came to be among and within.

There was no room for him in the inn, in the fancy, warm, dry place of hubbub and privilege. So he finds the places where there is room. That is the miracle of Christmas. However busy we are, however little we have room for this pathetic, poor, bedraggled one, he is among us, a miracle right under our nose, waiting until we have room, until we are the one out in the cold or grieving, or until we realize that much of what use to fill our lives is much like those aluminum Christmas trees, fake and hollow, though glitzy. I think many of us realize it now, but we are just so afraid to let go of all that and stand vulnerable with our arms open to receive what God is offering, something real, something small, something meaningful, something living. And maybe he isn't even going to wait until we are prepared or ready, he is going to surprise us with his presence, ready or not, because we, too, are lost and hungry, feeling small and insignificant, weary of the consumerism, weary of the injustice, and maybe just looking for Jesus to surprise us and interrupt our very predictable lives with good news of great joy.

December 20, 2015

Gospel: Luke 1:39-55 
1st Reading: Micah 5:2-5a
2nd Reading: Hebrews 10:5-10

An unwed mother goes to wait our her pregnancy far away from wagging tongues and accusing eyes. An older woman find herself pregnant after years of infertility. A baby leaps in a womb. Two women with vastly different experiences find commonalities. Two women sing together. Two people bless each other. Two people know what it is like to be outsiders, embrace each other and support each other. A person with more experience and power defers to someone with less. These are completely ordinary occurrences. And yet we see in them hope and new life.

A family sits down to a Christmas feast. Two people who have argued talk it out like adults. Someone finds healing in Alcoholics Anonymous. Someone drives someone to a doctor appointment. Someone gives a gift to someone who might not otherwise receive a gift. Someone listens to a child. People sing together at a nursing home. New family members are welcomed. People share. These are completely ordinary occurrences and yet we can see in them hope and new life.

Each year at Advent and Christmas time, I follow a very similar routine. At some point I take down the orange of Thanksgiving and go to the basement for my three boxes of Christmas decorations. We exchange Christmas lists. I bake spritz cookies. I gather gifts and wrap them. We go get a tree or put up our artificial tree. I go to the post office to mail gifts. We open Christmas cards and get news of the year from family and friends. We listen to the same Christmas album that I have ever year since I was born. Maybe I even heard it in the womb—the Ray Coniff singers. Who knows if it is any good—it is tradition and it isn't Christmas without it. We go to grandma's for a Christmas celebration with her and all the cousins. We try to get together with Nick's side of the family and we always have to reschedule at least once due to illness. We struggle through holiday traffic. We exchange gifts. We eat food. We snuggle warm indoors. We have church. We sing “Joy to the World!” and “Silent Night.” I go home to celebrate with my family. Christmas is basically the same every year. In a way it is very ordinary.

And yet, there is something new happening, something hopeful and alive. There is something about this season that takes us back to childhood, that links us to the promises of God's presence coming among us, and that makes us look forward to a future of peace and joy so much that we want to act to make it so, so much that we do act to bring peace and joy on earth.

Maybe the most ordinary thing of all is the singing. We sang part of the Gospel this morning that Mary sang. As Pastor Hiller taught us last week in our Sunday morning Bible 101 class, often in the Bible when we see the text take the form of poetry, that's because the Bible scholars figure the speaker was singing. 

Even though singing, especially group singing, is becoming a lost art, it is so basic to who we are. Some scholars believe that before humans ever spoke, we sang, and that speaking evolved from that. Hearing my son make up new songs several times a week, makes me believe that more and more. Singing seems such a part of our nature. It can capture a depth of feeling that simply speaking cannot. It commits thoughts to memory—how often can you remember exactly what a person said, but you go home from church singing the choir anthem or a new hymn that you only just heard for the first time? 

Church is one of the few places where folks still expect to sing together. Sometimes the chanting of the communion setting in church seems so old fashioned and strange, but when we think of ages gone by when there weren't microphones to amplify the voice, singing provided a way for the sound to travel and the vowel sounds to be elongated so that words could be understood, even way in the back of the church.

This is one time of year when we still expect people to come together and sing in groups. Of course I'm talking about Christmas Caroling. It isn't a surprise to see a group singing in the mall or walking down the sidewalk. Singing together is a very ancient practice, it was one of the few types of entertainment that families had at their disposal before television was invented. 

But singing is not just ordinary or common. Singing is revolutionary. It is words that get to the heart. Singing changes us.

When the Berlin Wall came down, the report was that groups gathered there to sing. It started small, with a thousand or so in Leipzig and grew to 300,000 people gathered singing songs of justice and resistance. When the guards were asked why they didn't do something about it, why they didn't defend the wall, they said, “We had no contingency plan for song.” 

In times of American Slavery, slaves sang those songs of resistance to find hope, to build community, to remember who they were. Imagine what they thought as they sang the magnificat. God came to Mary, a person of little importance, and brought forth God's child, God's presence on earth through her. Jesus came to even everything out, to make everything right, to crush the proud and lift up the humble and downtrodden. What an incredible song of hope.

The folks in the readings for this day are in dark times. They don't have much reason to find God's presence in their midst. There is some debate about when this was written, but it was a good summary of how people felt in a number of instances when it seemed all hope was lost, when people weren't even sure if they would see the next day, let alone live secure. For Mary, she had every reason fear—fear that Joseph would release her and that she'd be shunned. For Elizabeth, she had given up a long time ago that she would ever bear a child. Earlier in the Gospel of Luke she talks about the disgrace she has endured among her people, that she was looked down upon by family and neighbors, that she and others felt her lacking as a woman that she had been unable to have a child. 

It is from this place of darkness, lack of hope, of despair and disgrace, that all these stories move toward the light and can receive the light, that they begin to expect the light, they are more prepared for the light and love and blessing of God.

Maybe we even sing our Advent hymns as an act of resistance. Some pastors, I know, feel pressured by their congregations to introduce Christmas hymns during the season of Advent. The hymns are playing all over the radio and then of course the day after Christmas they are gone. But we are waiting. We are full of expectation, we are watching, on the edge of our seat for the contractions to begin. Waiting is an art. It is something we get better at when we practice it together. We are waiting for Christmas, for the birth of Christ on Christmas Eve. And we are waiting for fullness of Christ's presence, for God's love and peace to be known by everyone, on whatever day of the year of fleeting moment or whatever that would look like. And we don't just wait by sitting in our armchair. We prepare. We take those ordinary moments and we look for the extraordinary presence of Christ in them. We take that ordinary trip to the store as an opportunity to help someone else, whether it is carrying their groceries, or grabbing extra cans of food for backpack buddies, or bringing someone along with us who can't get to the store on their own. We prepare by taking the chance to give a gift to someone who is forgotten or invite over a neighbor who might be lonely or by singing with someone in a nursing home. We are preparing for the love of Christmas to change us and thus change our world. That's when something ordinary becomes something transformative, when God is magnified and we see God's presence and love more clearly, and God magnifies those who are forgotten and despairing.

In the Gospel, Elizabeth blesses Mary. Elizabeth knows what it is like to have people talk about you behind your back and reject you. She knows a little bit of what Mary is facing. She turns her experience into blessing. She is the more powerful woman, and should expect Mary to respect her and dote on her. Instead she is honored by her cousin's visit and uses it as an opportunity to bless Mary and give her all the attention. And then she steps aside and lets Mary have the greater song. We can take a hint from Elizabeth, that when we are in the position of power, when we are the older, the more educated, the more wealthy, that is our opportunity to bless someone else, give them our attention, and let them be the one to shine. 

My prayer is that we would be expectant, that we would be on the lookout for the extraordinary in the ordinary, on the lookout for God's presence in ordinary moments. My prayer is that we would see God, not far away, but coming among us to empower us, and that our lives would be ones of blessing.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

December 13, 2015

Gospel: Luke 3:7-18 
1st Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-20
2nd Reading: Philippians 4:4-7

“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice.” Today is the Sunday of Joy in the Advent Season. When the whole world is telling us to be afraid, we come here to rejoice. The days are getting literally darker and shorter. The waters are rising. The winds are howling. The forces of nature are telling us to be afraid in these dark days. And the darkening days are mirrored by the news. Be afraid and stay inside, don't get together with your neighbor because you might get hurt, don't help someone in need because they won't appreciate it, don't do anything but sit safely and watch this fearful news cycle and watch these commercials that cause more fear.

We want to do something, so today we turn to John the Baptist. He's the latest new craze, someone telling the truth even if it sounds a little harsh. We want something to change. We don't want to be afraid anymore, but we're not sure where to turn. 

He takes one look at us and says, “You brood of vipers!” Oh man, he's on to us. He tells us we're part of the problem. He challenges us to see if we're going to run away at his fiery speech or if we're desperate enough that we really do want change. He tells us that it isn't going to be enough to be in team Abraham or to join team John the Baptist or to get a little water thrown around and pay lip service to making change. “Change is coming!” he tell us. Get ready for the real change, God coming with fire and breath, Spirit, love. 

We, along, with the crowd, ask him, “What should we do?”

Even, tax collectors, lawyers, and used car salesmen, pimps, and IRS workers, insurance salesmen and billionaires came to John and asked, “What should we do?”

Soldiers and FBI, traffic cops, and investigators, spies, and all in the weapons industry also asked him, “What should we do?”

We hear of ISIS and we ask, “What should we do? What can we do?”

We read about the Climate talks in France and we ask, “What should we do?”

We look at the Christmas ads and drive in frantic holiday traffic and ask, “What should we do?”
John replies, “God is coming. I'm no one compared to him. He will separate the wheat the from the chaff. He will help us to understand what is wheat, what is lasting and satisfying, what is life-giving and hopeful and essential. And he will help us to understand what is chaff, what is expendable, temporary, trash that will be blown away by the wind and the Holy Spirit.

Pastor Sara was talking this week about roasting your own coffee this week in Text Study. Coffee beans have chaff, part of the seed coat that needs to burn off or be blown off or get picked off. She roasts hers in an air popper so that most of the chaff is blown off. But then she sits and picks through all the beans for any remaining chaff, because if it gets in the coffee it will make it bitter and disgusting.

We tend to think that some of us are wheat and some are chaff and boy is it easy to pick out those chaff kind of folk that don't make the cut. John doesn't separate the people by who is good and who is bad. He doesn't say soldiers over here and merchants over here, or rich people over here and poor over here. He doesn't say team Abraham over here and everyone else get out. He didn't say Muslims over here and Christians over here. We all have chaff. We all have something that is expendable and bitter that needs to be burned off or blown away or hacked off with an axe. We have it as individuals and as a group. And we all have a kernel of wheat, something valuable and beautiful and nutritious and lasting. According to John, it is God who separates these from each other and does this work. So then we ask, “What should we do? What is our part in all this?”

He says to do something that matters, that is constructive, that is wheat-like. 

Share. We learned in Bible Study about a man born in 1380, Bernadino of Sienna. He became a Franciscan Friar and one of the most popular preachers in Italy. He said that the poor give value to the life of the rich, because they give the rich someone to share with. Without the poor, there would be no reason to have rich people around, no way rich people could say their lives were valuable or meaningful. It thought that was an interesting perspective. Sharing gives our lives value, and don't we find that anyone can share, no matter what their bank account balance. We do share money and material possessions, but we also share love, and recipes, and the work load, and our problems and advice and love and so many things that you can't put a value on. We would call those priceless. Even if you only have one more than you need, share it—food, coats, dollars, pets, blankets, socks, shoes, whatever it is! It builds relationships between people. It simplifies our life. It can strengthen another that they have what they need. What should we do? Share. 

But that's not all. What should we do? Be honest. Collect no more than than the amount prescribed for you. No matter what anyone else does, don't take more than you need. When we are honest, we build trust in our community. We are reliable and we set an example for others to follow. We are full of fear and we want our world to be different, “What should we do?” Be honest.

But that's not all. What should we do? Be thankful. When it is so tempting to complain, to focus on what we don't have, to be fearful, there is one thing we can do and that is to be thankful—start counting our blessings. When everyone else wants the new car, the latest phone, the vacation house, the perfect eyebrows, the hover board, be satisfied with the blessings and gifts that we have. We are anxious and afraid, “What should we do?” “Be thankful.”

If we don't like things the way they are, if we don't want to see so much suffering, if we don't want to argue in our families so much, if we don't want to be afraid anymore, if we want our world to change, we can't just ask others to change. We have to be willing to change. We have to let God change us. We have to be willing to change our from the chaff to the wheat. We have to let God change our habits to what is temporary to what is lasting and satisfying.

I heard a quote this week, “Feeling afraid is different from being afraid.” From time to time we will feel afraid, and for good reason. There are dangers in this world that we are trying to warn each other about, legitimate things to be concerned about that we can do something about. However, we can become afraid as a habit, as a constant state of anxiety when we hear bad news story after bad news story, when we see the red ticker going across the bottom of the screen on the news, when we get on Facebook and see downed trees and flooded homes and shootings and lit candles in remembrance and arguments about gun control or banning Muslims. It is too easy to become afraid, for that feeling to become a lasting state of mind that we are acting from and getting ulcers from. 

“What can we do?” Don't feed it. Don't pay any more attention to it. Turn to something constructive, help someone else. Don't just feel generous, be generous. Don't just feel grateful, be grateful, don't just feel honest, be honest. Be the change you want to see, not because you are going to save the world or because you feel guilty, but out of thanksgiving for all God has done, trusting that God will separate the wheat from the chaff in your own life and in the life of your community. I enjoyed reading a sermon by Pastor Nadia Boltz-Weber this week. It was for Christ the King Sunday, but she was pointing out what really lasts and matters, what is wheat, and what ends up being merely a footnote, the chaff that gets blown away. 

This is what she wrote:
“So my prayer this week when I just didn’t know what to pray was simple. I named every single thing and person that seems so powerful right now as to feel inescapable – rulers, tyrants, my own sins, societal forces etc. and I named them and then said “footnote”. Pontias Pilate – footnote, The Islamic state – footnote, My own participation in the things I say I don’t believe in – footnote, The gun lobby – footnote, Your depression – footnote, Your boss – footnote, Student Loans – footnote, Xenophobic violence – footnote
Don’t mistake me – all of these things are very real and the horrible effect they have on us and on the world is also very real. But in the big picture I defiantly believe that God can redeem it. All of it. Our God will be victorious turning swords into plough-shares and anxiety into hope. I will cling to the promise that ALL flesh shall see the salvation of God.”