The Top 10 Books I Read In 2015

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

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Without a doubt, The Sellout is one of the most convicting novels I have ever read. Set in south Los Angeles County in an impoverished community with a farm, the story covers racism, comedy, subsistence farming, the Little Rascals, the (in)justice system, and a slew of other subjects. The main character, a black farmer raised by a controversial sociologist, attempts to reinstitute segregation in hopes of giving hope back to the black community. Favorite line: “It’s illegal to yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater, right?” “It is.” “Well, I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.”

 

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

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McBride’s novel is a fictive retelling of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. The narrative follows a young male black child who pretends to be a girl after meeting John Brown in order to avoid hard work and violence. The story is gripping to such a degree that I nearly read the entire thing in one sitting.

 

The Work of Theology by Stanley Hauerwas

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Hauerwas’ new collection of essays is the closest thing to listening to him lecture at Duke Divinity School. Collected in an all encompassing format, the essays show Hauerwas’ attempt to wrestle with important subjects from how he thinks he learned to think theologically, to how to write a theological sentence, to how to be theologically funny (though other essays are actually funnier than the one on being funny). It is quintessentially Hauerwas and worthy of anyone wanting to know what it means to be theological.

 

Hear The Wind Sing / Pinball 1970 by Haruki Murakami

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For years Murakami resisted the demands of publishers and fans for an English version of his debut novels. Written while he owned and operated a jazz bar in Tokyo, he claims that it took him two novels to figure out how to really write, and he describes A Wild Sheep Chase to be his first true novel. However, this year his first two stories were published in English together in one volume. It is clear that Murakami is learning his voice through these narratives, but as an avid fan of his work, is was a joy to see the beginnings of his imagination at play.

 

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

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Full disclosure: This was my third attempt to read David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece. The first two times I would get through 50-100 pages and just give up. It is a struggle. With footnotes that propel the story forward but also drive the reader crazy, you have to really work to get through this thing. But if you can, it’s worth it. It is impossible to describe Infinite Jest in a way that does the thing justice, and that’s kind of the point. It is at times comedic, tragic, political, geographical, historic, and absurdist. If you have the time and patience to make it through, it will change the way you look at literature.

Also: the all-too-brief section describing the game of Eschaton is incredible.

 

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

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Graphic-novels were a new thing for me this year. I read through all the great Batman works by the likes of Frank Miller, Jeff Loeb, and Alan Moore, but the one graphic-novel that continues to stay in my mind is The Complete Maus. Written and drawn by the son of a holocaust survivor, Maus tells the story of a man’s survival and destruction. Spiegelman’s use of animals to portray human characters makes the story approachable while also making the subject matter completely jarring. Spiegelman’s graphic novel is one that demands to be read in order to remind us of how quickly prejudice can lead to violence.

 

I Am Radar by Reif Larsen

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Larsen’s follow-up to the incredible debut novel of The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet, is about a black child named Radar Radmanovic born to white parents. While at first the giant novel seems like at attempt to bridge racial tensions, it really avoids the subject altogether. Instead the narrative is about Radar’s father and the way that art can change the soul regardless of whether anyone is there to observe it. Additionally, Larsen’s use of fictive footnotes to books that do not exist draws the reader into a total world within, and outside of, the story.

 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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Flanagan’s story is not for the faint of heart. There were times that I wanted stop reading because it was just too sad. The novel jumps time periods in Dorrigo Evan’s life from his childhood in Australia, to his love affair as a young soldier, to his work on the Burma Railway as a POW in 1943, to the effects of life after the war. Flanagan resists the temptation to stay with one narrator and shows both sides to every story within the novel, leaving the reader helpless to determine who was right or wrong, or whether we should even use those qualifiers to describe ourselves.

 

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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Doerr’s novel deserves all of the strong reviews and awards it received this year. Set before, during, and immediately after World War II it follows a young boy who winds up fighting for the Germans, and a young blind woman struggling to survive in France. As their individual stories eventually come together, the reader beholds a beautiful and haunting novel about what it really takes to “see” the other.

 

Life After Life / A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

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I have collected the two novels as one because they really inform one another. The first portrays a young British woman living through World War II and the many ways that she dies. Every time she comes to the end of her life, whether from a disease or a bomb, the story starts over and the young woman makes minor changes to her life in order to avoid the previous outcome. It is unlike anything else I have read. The second novel follows the girl’s brother as an RAF pilot during the war and his attempts to find a normal life in post-war Europe. Atkinson’s characterization shows an author at the top of her game, and I can’t wait to see what else she puts out in the years to come.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt

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Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

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The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

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The Arab of the Future: A Graphic Memoir

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What Are You Wearing?

Colossians 3.12-17

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called to be one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

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Worshipping so close to Christmas Day is a challenge. Christmas Eve: I love it. The way families come out, the perfect color-coordinated outfits, and we get a ton of people who never come to church. But the crowd on the Sunday after Christmas, you all, you make it tough. You are the real deal. You are the ones who love the light of Christmas Eve but recognize that you need the companionship of other Christians to hold you accountable in between Christmas Eve and Easter. You expect to hear uplifting sermons on Christmas Eve, but you also want to hear about the challenges of living a faithful life. You don’t want the watered-down stuff. You want the authentic discipleship.

Francis Asbury, depicted in this stained glass window to my right, also felt the challenge of preaching on this side of Christmas. In his journal entry from Christmas day in 1788, while making his way through the wilds of Virginia, he wrote: “I preached in the open house at Fairfield on Isaiah 9.6. I felt warm in speaking; but there was an offensive smell of rum among the people.”

From up here in the pulpit I certainly can’t smell rum on your breath, but I can smell all the Christmas food filling up all your Tupperware in the fridge, the ripped wrapping paper stuffed in trash bags, and all of the new clothes and gifts you received. Friends, you stink of Christmas.

Worshipping so close to Christmas day is a challenge. While we are still flying high on all the gifts we opened and gave, while we are admiring all the new clothes we get to wear, God still call us together to hear the Word.

One of my good friends and preaching colleagues is a man by the name of Jason Micheli. He served as a mentor for my faith while I was growing up, and even presided over Lindsey’s and my wedding. Years ago he wanted to preach a sermon that involved a number of props up by the altar. The church had three services on Sunday morning so he would have to preach it three times in a row. The sermon had to do with the fact that all people are invited to feast at God’s communion table, so Jason had set up a variety of different looking dining room chairs around the altar. The point being that no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or what you look like, you are invited.

However, during the sermon, Jason wanted to lift up specific chairs and move them around the altar to get the message to really sink in. At the 8:30am service, while wearing his long white robe and carrying a chair up the steps, he stepped on the front part of his robe and nearly fell straight on his face in front of the whole congregation.

For the 9:30 and 11 o’clock services he made the decision to ditch the robe for fear of actually falling and making a fool of himself during the sermon. So during the final two services he said the same words, lifted the same chairs, made the same points, but did so without a robe.

Like all pastors, Jason heard the kind of generic compliments and critiques that are often expressed in the narthex following worship. “Good sermon” or “You gave us a lot to think about” or “Nice weather today.” But none of the comments prepared him for what happened next.

Over the following days and weeks, Jason received a considerable number of anonymous complaints from church members about the fact that he did not wear a robe during worship. He wasn’t trying to make some point, or go contemporary, or purposely upset people. He just didn’t want to fall down and get hurt. But instead of going to him directly to express their opinion, anonymous notes were left under his door, members went to lay-leaders with their frustrations, and some even bypassed the local church and went straight to the bishop to complain. The situation became so intense so fast that Jason actually received a phone call from the bishop about the fact that he was not wearing a robe in church.

Want to know a secret? God’s doesn’t care what we wear to church.

God couldn’t care less about what we have adorned on ourselves when we gather in this place. So long as we are wearing something, God is content. Yet, we put so much emphasis on the clothing and appearance of one another.

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On Christmas Eve, mere days ago, a time when the church is filled to the brim, I received more comments about the Christmas colored pants I was wearing than anything else. Before and after the service that’s what I heard about.

And it’s not isolated to Christmas Eve. Week after week I overhear seemingly innocent comments from some of you, “Can you believe what she wore to church this week?” or “How can she let him out of the house looking like that?” And two years ago, when I was invited to preach at Central UMC during Lent I wore a pair of Carhart Coveralls in the pulpit. To this day I still run into people in Staunton who remember what I wore far more than what I said. And if I’m honest, I judge on outward appearance as well. Whenever I’m driving through our town, or even when I’m up here in the pulpit, I catch myself making judgments about how other people look.

How strange that we judge on outward appearance, while God cares about the content of our character.

Paul wrote to the church in Colossae about how to dress properly. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint about someone else, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

This Christian work regarding our behavioral and spiritual clothing is tough. We are called to bear with one another, forgive one another, and be bound to one another. This kind of work and effort is not for the faint of heart. This passage is not advice on how to avoid conflict. This passage is not telling us to put on a happy face and smile. This passage is not Paul’s version of accentuate the positive.

This text is about what to do when the real emotional brawls break out in our lives.

When the earliest Christians were baptized, they were told to strip off their clothes before entering the baptismal waters, and then were given new clothes in their new life. The clothes themselves were nothing special, but the whole act was to signify an entirely new way of being and relating to others.

When they stepped foot out of the water they were making a covenant to be clothed with the virtues of Christ: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. They embarked on the difficult practice of bearing with one another and the ultimate challenge of forgiveness. They started on a path on striving to live like Jesus in the world.

God does not care about what we wear to church, but is instead concerned with the way we dress our souls.

We can wear all the right Christian clothes, we can wear clergy collars or robes, we can adorn ourselves with shirts that came from a mission trip, or we can wear the biggest crosses you’ve ever seen around our necks, but until we are clothed with the behavior and compassion of Jesus, all the clothes remain meaningless.

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To be well dressed with Christ is to live in harmony with others. Not just letting other people get away with their behavior and smiling absent-mindedly in response. Not just letting frustrations percolate for years. Not just ignoring people who are different than us.

To be well dressed with Christ is to actually forgive others, actually live our lives with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. To be well dressed with Christ is to be clothed with love.

The days after Christmas are always interesting. Worshipping so close to Christmas is obviously a challenge and exemplifies the depth of discipleship. But in our day-to-day lives, the days following Christmas can bring out the worst in us. The joy of presents can be replaced with thoughts of the other things we wanted. The excitement of the family getting together can be replaced with the old arguments and fights. The hope of a baby born in a manger to save the world can be replaced with the scream and tears of our children coming down from a sugar-rush.

Yet, here we are. In the shadow of Christmas trees we gather to remember the light that shines in the darkness. While people rejoice with their new material gifts and possessions we give thanks for the gift of Christ that endures forever. As the marketed desires of the world turn to the next big holiday, we remember that every day is a gift.

We are challenged by the words of Paul today. Paul calls us to act, speak, and behave like Christ. While the world spins and focuses elsewhere, we are pushed to live like the baby born in the manger.

When we wake up every morning, if we do so with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience we will be living according to the ways of the one born in Bethlehem, the one who walked and talked in Galilee, hung on a cross for you and me, and rose three days later magnificently. Amen.

Christmas Eve – Extra(Ordinary)

Luke 2.1-14

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in their fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 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 the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

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Merry Christmas! O what a time to be gathered together. Christmas is just special. The way we decorate our homes with lights and manger scenes. The presents all piled up under the trees. The advent calendars filled with mediocre pieces of chocolate.

It’s hard not to get nostalgic and reminiscent during the holidays. When you pull out the favorite ornament, you remember your grandmother who crafted it with care. When you see the cracked serving platter you remember the uncle who had a little too much nog that one year and dropped it. When you finally plug in the lights on the front of the house, you remember all the years your father mumbled under his breath as he struggled to untangle all the cords.

Christmas is the best. Among the decorations, and the songs, and the gifts, we are reminded of the great story of Jesus’ birth. This is a story we have told again and again to the point that I bet you know all the details….

Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to the city of David called ­­­Bethlehem. He went there to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and was expecting a child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

What a story, but it could have gone like this…

Mary sat in the uncomfortable airport lounge and could not believe that she could actually no longer see her feet. Everyday her body was changing with new movements, sounds, and smells. She found herself wishing for an easier pregnancy, feet that would stop swelling, and a baby that would stop kicking her in the side every time she fell asleep.

Mary was thankful for Joseph, how much he doted on her over the last 9 months, but if he made one more comment about how beautiful she looked she was going to punch him in the face. “I know I look like a cow!” she would say, “stop pretending that I’m something that I’m not.” Mary blamed the outbursts on the hormones, but sometimes it just felt nice to speak her mind.

She sat in the airport lounge, and couldn’t believe she had agreed to travel while pregnant. Joseph had been initially suspicious of the pregnancy, but he was a good man and stuck by her side. And here they were, waiting to get on the plane, and it felt like people’s eyes were magnetized to her belly.

Is it a boy or a girl?” someone asked for the thousandth time. Mary turned to her right and tried to return the smile, but her sarcasm got the better or her, and she said, “We’re just hoping it’s a human!

Are you going to try natural child birth?” someone asked for the thousandth time. Mary turned to her left and tried to return the smile, but declared, “That’s frankly none of your business!

Finally, a woman from the airline announced that anyone with medical needs could begin boarding the plane. “One of the rare perks…” thought Mary as she pushed herself up from the seat. She wobbled over to the gate like a penguin when an older woman walked up with her hand outstretched to rub Mary’s belly. Joseph quickly jumped in front to stop the arm from making contact and instead put out his arm to on a direct course to the woman’s abdomen and said, “How would you feel if a stranger tried to rub your belly?

Mary’s seat on the airplane felt smaller than usual and, try as she might, she couldn’t sleep. Joseph sat next to her with his earmarked copy of What To Expect When You’re Expecting open to the section on child-birth. And Mary cringed when she thought about what her body would be doing in the not too distant future.

By the time they finally landed, stood in line for the rental car, and finally made it out of the airport, Mary was exhausted. Her feet felt like flippers, and she was starting to feel what she thought were contractions, but she was determined to believe it was something else.

As they drove through the empty city streets late that night, the feeling grew worse and more regular until it came with such suddenness that Mary yelled at Joseph to pull the car over. In the dimly lit alley with cats meowing behind cardboard boxes and passersby ignoring the scene right in front of them, Mary gave birth to a baby boy, wrapped him in her fiancés sweater, and grinned from ear to ear.

All the pain she had felt, all the fear of how much her life would change, all the frustrations with strangers and inappropriate comments started to fade away into the darkness. Instead she saw her little baby as the light of the world. In him she saw a better and brighter future. In him she knew the world would be turned upside down. And she named him Jesus.

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We know the story. We hear it year after year. We see it portrayed by children in church productions, and on the front lawns of countless homes. Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem because the emperor believed that everyone needed to be registered. When they arrived there was no room at the inn, so Mary had her baby and placed him in a manger.

The text from Luke, rather than romanticizing the poverty of Mary and Joseph, invites us to see them as people much like us. The details are lacking and the narrative flows in a way that feels rather ordinary. Mary and Joseph were just two people trying to make their way in the world, like a couple traveling during the holidays. They were normal people; people who felt the pressures of the world and the judgments of others; people who were squeezed by rising taxes and governmental expectations; people who were weary from a variety of struggles including the fear of childbirth; people who were badly in need of hope.

And, as God would have it, the hope they so desperately needed came to them that night as a baby. In the ordinary ways of the world, something extraordinary happened. Jesus, the light of the world, was born to that struggling couple surrounded by the most ordinary of circumstances and changed the world forever.

The baby was extraordinary, God incarnate, capable of miracles and filled with Messianic hope. The baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, God in the flesh, was born to guide the world in the ways that lead to life.

We are like Mary and Joseph and Jesus was born to us and for us. The story takes places in the ordinary but makes our lives extraordinary. So often we hear about how Jesus’ birth changed the cosmos and the very history of the world that we forget about how this wonderful and precious moment actually changed our individual lives as well. It changed us, people who are trying to understand our ordinary lives in light of the extraordinary news that God came as a baby for us.

If you haven’t spent much time in the Bible, this is how it works. If you haven’t experienced much of God’s presence, this is how God works. The extraordinary arises within the ordinary. The heavens break forth in the middle of a moment here on earth. What we usually see as normal and commonplace is often the realm of God’s marvelous work among us.

If you want to know God, you don’t have to go off on some high mountaintop, you don’t have to sink deep into the recesses of your ego. You just have to be in a place like Bethlehem, or an airport, or a rental car, or a church. You just need to be in the midst of trying to make your way in the world, getting along as best you can with what you’ve got. That’s when God loves to show up and change our lives forever.

When Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph the ordinary became extraordinary. In that tiny baby they would come to discover what it means to love God and neighbor in new and radical ways. In that tiny baby they would have their sins forgiven and salvation presented. In that tiny baby they would finally understand how much God loved them.

God loves to show up in the ordinary things of life. God shows up in the bread and juice offered to us at the table without cost. God shows up in the flicker of a flame as we sing silent night together. God shows up in the cry of a baby who came to change the world.

God shows up and makes our ordinary lives extraordinary. What a gift.

Merry Christmas.

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Devotional – Isaiah 9.2

Devotional

Isaiah 9.2

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.
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When I was preparing my Christmas Eve sermon last year, I was struck by the importance of God’s light shining in the darkness. During the weeks leading up to Christmas I read over the differing texts, and explored different hymns, but the image of God’s light stayed at the forefront of my mind. So when it came time to conclude my thoughts on God’s greatest gift from the pulpit, this is what I said:

“For me, Christmas is at it’s realest when we light our candles as we sing Silent Night. Some of my earliest memories are standing in a dark sanctuary on Christmas Eve while people around me are singing. In mere minutes the darkness is replaced by a brilliant light, made remarkable by the God who took on our flesh to dwell among us, to be God with us.

Jesus is the light of the world who shines in the darkness. Whatever that darkness might look like for you, whether it be an uncertain future, fears about your children, frustrating family members, the loss of a loved one, a heavy diagnosis, or the lack of love in your life, Jesus stands in stark contrast as the one who brings the light into our lives.

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Christmas Eves always mean the most and convey the most when we feel the depth of the darkness. Because new life always starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark.

At the end of our service we will turn out all the lights, from the one candle, the Christ candle, we will light all others as we sing Silent Night. As we do so let us open our eyes the different forms of darkness in our lives and give thanks to the light of the world who shines in the darkness.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we hear the familiar words that have been sung for centuries exclaiming the great joy of the newborn king.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we gather as God’s table to feast on the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we see the light of Christ shining in one another.”

It is my hope and prayer that no matter where you are, or who you’re with, God’s light will shine in your lives. Merry Christmas.

The Gifts of God – Peace

Micah 5.2-5a

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are the one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.

 

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The children looked perfect in their Christmas pageant costumes. One by one they entered the chancel area in preparation for proclaiming their individual lines. The shepherds came first, watching over their sheep. Then the animals of the manger came forth, including a cow, a bird, and a mouse. They all made it to their spots and sat perfectly still as a donkey, Mary, and Joseph walked up to the microphone and exclaimed that a baby would soon be born, but they would need to find a place to stay.

Then the angelic cherubs boldly walked down the center aisle in the dark each holding an electric candle. The lead angel walked up to the microphone and frightening declared: “Do not be afraid! I bring joy to everyone!” The wise men and a camel followed the star to the manger where they presented the baby Jesus with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

I had the best vantage point of the entire production from up here in the pulpit. I could see all of the children with their costumes and I could also look out at the faces of all the parents, families, and friends that had gathered for this spectacular performance. I was honestly beaming while I stood up here on Tuesday evening because the kids had all done such a great job, they all nailed their lines, and were standing perfectly still in their spots.

Except for one of our shepherds.

Throughout the weeks of practice we had purposely withheld the shepherd staffs from the children knowing full and well that they would play with them too much. And during the actual performance most of them were being wonderful, but one of the shepherds could not overcome the desire to do something.

At first he just twirled the staff around in his hands like trying to start a fire on the carpet. Later, he swung it from side to side like a microphone at a rock and roll concert. I tried my best to whisper powerfully for him to stop, and though he would for a moment or two, he would then start up with something new.

As we were nearing the end of the performance, nearly all of the characters and animals from the manger scene were in place; the little shepherd grabbed his staff and started lifting it into the air. I, of course, immediately thought of Moses lifting up his staff in the wilderness to strike the rock for water. I, of course, immediately thought of how theological our young shepherd was being as he lifted the staff into the air, but then I realized he was about to bash somebody on the top of the head!

Breaking character from the pulpit, I quickly reached down and stopped the staff in mid arch. My eyes went down the shaft of the staff to the little hand, to the arm, to the face of the young shepherd, and instead of seeing a repentant and apologetic look; he had the biggest and proudest grin on his face.

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We lean toward violence. From Preschoolers picking up shepherd staffs, to fights in high school, to international and political disagreements, we lean toward violence. There is a power that comes with violence and demonstrates our importance and opinion. Violence has been at the forefront of some of the most important historical moments in the entirety of human existence and still captivates our attention. The movies that make the most money, the stories that garner the most attention, the moments we can’t tear our eyes away from usually contain violence.

As I have found myself saying too often from this pulpit: just turn on the TV or get online and you will be immediately bombarded with the violence in the world and the local community. Even this season of Advent and preparation for the holidays tends to bring out the worst in us. We have short tempers with the people ahead of us in line while we are buying gifts. We mutter inappropriate comments about drivers that are just driving too slowly. And we secretly expect to receive as many good gifts as we give.

Our lives and the world are filled with aggression, anger, and violence.

Yet, the prophet tells us about the one who will come with peace.

Micah spoke during a time of considerable unrest. The situation was grim with corrupt political leaders. There were fearful enemies on the horizon. Internal disputes were pinning people against one another. (Sound familiar?) And while the people saw no hope, Micah saw the promise of peace. Micah looked beyond the present circumstances, he looked beyond the news headlines and the talking heads, he looked beyond the broken and tarnished community to what God was promising to do.

From the little town of Bethlehem will come one who will rule the world. From a back road town of insignificance will come the one who will lead his flock in the way that leads to life and peace.

Many of us have a hard time imaging that an impressive hero can come from such a small town and such a fragile beginning. We, instead, look to politicians and presidents, magistrates and ministers, to fix all of our problems. But from the words of scripture this morning, Micah is jumping up and down and waving his arms to move us in an entirely different direction. He is pointing not at the towering leaders of the world on CNN. He is not drawing us to the political buildings in Washington DC. Instead he is pushing us to a small, out of the way, little place called Bethlehem.

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Jesus is the one of peace, the one who comes as a light in the darkness, the one who will stand and lead like a shepherd. Jesus came from humble beginnings and changed the world.

One of the things that the bible loves to show us is that true power and peace often comes from unexpected people in unexpected places. Many of us have heard the Christmas story so many times that we are desensitized to the insignificance of Bethlehem in the most significant story ever told.

Yet, important babies that change the world can be born just about anywhere. Bethlehem is proof of that. Every baby has the potential to help remind us of the way that leads to peace. Jesus is proof of that.

This week, our little neck of the woods made national news. A local geography teacher landed in the hot seat for an assignment where her students were required to copy a text in Arabic from the Quran. The purpose was to demonstrate the beauty and power of calligraphy and, in a sense, teach students to appreciate people who have differing beliefs and opinions. However, when a particular parent found out that the text in Arabic said, “There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” everything came to a head.

In the days that followed, a community meeting was held at a local church for concerned parents who were outraged by the assignment. Augusta County rightly started to step up security measures in order to maintain the peace, but the longer the situation percolated the more frightening it became. On Thursday morning there were armed guards at Riverheads elementary school. And on Thursday afternoon, every student in Augusta County was ordered to leave their respective school and the buildings were to go on lockdown. Lastly, Friday’s classes were completely canceled.

Augusta County received so many threats by phone and mail that they believed they could not guarantee the safety of their students and decided to cancel an entire day of school.

There are so many facets to the story that we don’t have enough time to address all of them, but suffice it to say, it is sad. It is a sad that a teacher did not take the time to re-evaluate what text she was having the students copy. It is sad that an entire community responded immediately out of fear and hatred. It is sad that such a tremendous amount of people were filled with rage to the point that Augusta County had to cancel school. It is sad.

While Fox News picked up the story for the nation to learn about what was going on here, I felt God’s Word calling me to listen to the Bethlehem-like voices. Instead of reading news article after news article from talking heads, I went to the local youth of our community and listened.

This is what one of them said: “Religion is not the problem. Religion does not breed terrorism. Ignorance breeds terrorism. Lack of education breeds terrorism. Failure to see the world around you breeds terrorism. Incompetence breeds terrorism. The inability to accept one’s wrongs breeds terrorism. The inability to connect and empathize and understand your fellow human beings is what breeds terrorism.”

I don’t know how to fix or change what happened in Augusta County this week, but if we continue to treat everyone who is different from us with nothing but suspicion and fear, then we have lost our connection to the one who comes in peace. If we make the self-righteous assumption that everyone should look like us, think like us, and talk likes us, then we have stopped following Jesus.

For too long we have lived with a culture that teaches us to defeat our enemies so that only our friends will be left. But that’s not what Jesus calls us to do! Jesus, the one born in a manger in Bethlehem, Jesus the one who shall be our peace, Jesus the one who we worship on Christmas Eve and every Sunday of our lives, tells us to love our enemies! Jesus calls us to pray for those who persecute us. Jesus tells us to live our lives in the way that leads to peace.

God’s peace in Christ is a gift; a gift with strings attached. God gives us peace, but we are to be instruments of God’s peace on earth. We know that peace is not easy. It requires a willingness to sacrifice and be vulnerable with people who differ from us. Peace is uncomfortable. Peace is strange. Peace is difficult because it is so contrary to the ways of the world.

Peace is hard, but so is following Jesus. Amen.

Devotional – Luke 1.52

Devotional:

Luke 1.52

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.

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Some sermons stick with us, while others fade away. I can remember interactive sermons from the church where I grew up that required congregational participation for the message to hit home. I can remember specific lines from the church I attended in college that continued to resonate in my relationships and activities. And I can definitely remember a preacher from seminary who connected the hymns in worship with the sermon better than anyone else.

After preaching steadily for the last few years, I have noticed how much I miss listening to sermons. I enjoy the art of crafting words to proclaim God’s Word in worship, but I also need to have words preached toward me as well. I will often listen to, or read, sermons online but they are no substitute for the depth of experiencing a sermon in worship.

Last advent, Clayton Payne, one of my clergy peers from Staunton, preached for a community advent service. I served as the liturgist for the service, welcoming the congregation, announcing the hymns, praying when necessary, and introducing the speaker. And then Clayton walked up in to the pulpit and brought the Word.

He preached from Mary’s Magnificat, Luke 1.46-55, a song of praise that she delivered after meeting with Elizabeth. The beginning of the sermon was striking because Clayton specifically confronted how joyful Christmas is for us, and how Mary’s song should really put us in our place. Mary proclaims that God will bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift of the lowly. Clayton then made it very clear that most of us are not the lowly that God will be raising up. We who rest in comfort, we who have presents piled under the Christmas tree, we who always know that we will have another meal, are like the powerful that God needs to bring down from our thrones of privilege.

I remember thinking that Clayton was mighty brave for preaching such a convicting sermon, and then I realized how right he was. Christmas should be a time of great joy and celebration, but it should also be a time when we take a hard look in the mirror and recognize our place of privilege. The words of scripture around the first Christmas are filled with hope for the lowly, but they are also filled with terror for the powerful.

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Some sermons stick with us, while others fade away. Though it still makes me uncomfortable, I am grateful for Clayton’s words that helped me to see another angle of the great story of God coming to change the world.

This week, as we prepare for Christmas, let us reflect on the sermons from the past that have stayed with us. Let us give thanks to the preachers who faithfully proclaimed God’s Word. And let us remember our place in the story.

The Gifts of God – Hope

Isaiah 12.2-6

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

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Over the last few weeks we have been going through a sermon series on The Gifts of God. This has been particularly fitting considering the fact that Advent is usually a time when we fret about what we will be purchasing for everyone else. However, this Advent, we have been reflecting on what God has given us. Today we continue the sermon series with God’s gift of Hope.

When I was a kid, even when I was as young as some of our preschoolers, I loved Star Wars. We had the old VHS versions of “A New Hope” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” The covers were so worn from use that you could barely read the writing, and the film inside the VHS tapes was starting to crackle from excessive usage. But I loved them nonetheless.

Some of the themes were lost on me as a child but I loved the light saber fights, the fundamental battle of Good vs. Evil (The Darkside vs. The Light), and that a kid from a Tatooine moisture farm could go from bulls-eyeing womp rats in T-16 to saving the entire galaxy.

Star Wars taught me that, with the right cause, even the weak could triumph. Star Wars taught me that we are not defined by our past and are given opportunities to change. And Star Wars taught me about hope.

In the beginning of Episode IV, aptly titled “A New Hope”, the galaxy is in disarray and the evil Empire continues to exert its power over the powerless. For a generation, people of all shapes and sizes cowered under the rule of the emperor and started to forget the way things used to be. However, a group of people held onto the hope of a new future, they called themselves The Rebel Alliance, and they believed that things could change.

Isaiah 12 is about hope for the future. Like the rebels from the Star Wars universe, Isaiah fundamentally believed that a day would come when everything would be turned upside down and salvation would be delivered.

With confidence, Isaiah declared a profound trust in the Lord, a trust without fear. With hope, Isaiah envisioned that future day when all of God’s people would give thanks to the Lord and make God’s deeds known among the nations. With joy, Isaiah could hear the songs of the future praising the mighty works of the Lord, for he would have done gloriously.

And on that day, God’s people will draw water from the wells of salvation.

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The man felt empty; like something was missing from his life. He had parents who loved him, he had gone to the right school, he had a good job, but things didn’t feel right. Whenever the holiday seasons came around he did not have the energy the call his parents, he resented the happy families at department stores purchasing gifts, and he abstained from the holiday radio channels.

He couldn’t explain it but one day he lost his patience with his family when they kept asking him about whether or not he was happy. One day at work he screamed at a customer after losing his patience. And one night, while he sat in his apartment, he realized how empty and lonely he felt.

He continued like this for some time. Living a dry and empty life, until he met her. She was everything he could have hoped for; smart, pretty, funny. They immediately hit it off, and in her he believed he found the solution for his emptiness, in her he thought he found the one thing that could fill him again.

The beginning of their marriage was wonderful; they saw the world with hope and expectation. They both were not filled, but they had more than they had in a long time. But it started to fade. Arguments with the in-laws, shouting matches in the living room, and nights spent sleeping in other rooms emptied them of the joy and hope they once felt.

They were at a crossroads in their relationship and were unsure of how to move forward. Both of them were too proud to try counseling, and definitely too proud to apologize, so they just continued with the thinly veiled frustration with one another. But then they had an idea: “Maybe if we have a child, it will fix all our problems, it will bring us closer together.”

They had some stability after the first, but when things reverted back to the pre-baby days, they decided to have a second child, and then a third. What they didn’t know, but what many of should know, is that even the perfect child cannot fill the emptiness within us. No child should be expected to make up for our baggage, and no child should be expected to heal our brokenness.

But this habit and rhythm in the family didn’t stop. After the kids, the parents tried to fill themselves with experiences and material possessions. They went on vacations they couldn’t afford, they took out a loan on a house they could never pay back, and every Christmas had to be better (and filled with more gifts) than the last. But all of these things failed to fill the emptiness they felt.

And on that day, God’s people will draw water from the wells of salvation.

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Jesus once met a woman at a well and confronted her emptiness. She had attempted to fill her life with man after man and yet there was something missing. Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

Many of us are broken. Actually, the truth is, we are all broken. Most of us just don’t want to admit it. We have good days, but there are times that we feel dry and empty inside. We seek out the wrong objects to validate our lives: a spouse, a career, a child. And none of those things are strong enough to hold our identity together.

Yet, God offers us this living water, water from a well that never runs dry. When we start to see the hope that God has given us, when we rest our identity on the fact that we are first a child of God, when we drop our buckets into God’s well of salvation things starts to change.

God knows our thoughts and minds. God witnesses our brokenness and sinfulness. And God still loves us anyway. God’s love is truly unconditional. God’s love is unmerited. God’s love is filled with hope for our futures.

I’ve only been doing this whole pastor thing for two and a half years, but two and a half years is long enough to know that most of us, if not all of us, are looking for love and validation in all the wrong places. We expect our children to makes our lives better, we expect the presents under the tree to make our lives fuller, and we expect our spouses to fix all of our problems.

Jesus offers us something totally and wonderfully different. Jesus offers us hope from the well of salvation. A hope in a future not defined by our past. A future not limited by the mistakes we make here and now. A future not corrupted by the powers of death.

Jesus offers us hope, a hope unlike any other, a hope that can truly fill us.

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When we find our hope in the Lord, we can stand up to the intolerance and injustice in our midst because we know God’s sees the world differently.

When we find our hope in the Lord, the presents under the tree will not leave us looking for the next fix because we will know that the greatest gift we’ve ever received is Jesus.

When we find our hope in the Lord, we can confront the brokenness in the world and know that life here on earth is not the end.

Isaiah had hope, hope for a day when God would show up, hope for a time when God would make all things new. Isaiah prayed for a future where people would sing praises for the glorious power of the Lord. Isaiah dreamed about a day when God would offer the wells of salvation to the world.

That hope became real on the first Christmas, and that hope is still real and available to you and to me.

Jesus calls to each of us today and says, “I can fill you. I can fill you with the living water that never runs dry. I can bring you to the well of salvation. I can fill you with hope, and love, and validation. I can fill you with joy, and peace, and purpose. I can fill you and turn your life around.

Amen.

 

(With thanks to the Tamed Cynic, Jason Micheli, for inspiring parts of this sermon)