An Old-Fashioned Christmas

Isaiah 9.2-7

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. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

           Merry Christmas! There’s just something different about Christmas. No matter how young or old we may be, no matter what kind of year precedes this night, Christmas Eve never fails to brighten our spirits. I look forward to this night unlike any other night with a kind of joyful anxiety: I know this holiday carries with it more meaning than can be contained in any sermon, and yet to share the story of the incarnation is one of my greatest privileges.

But there is a question I must ask: Why are you here tonight? Some of you were raised in this church and can’t imagine being anywhere else. Some of you have come alone, and others are with large families taking up an entire pew. Some of you have been planning to be in this place at this time for weeks, and some of you decided to come on a last minute impulse. Some of you have been dragged here against your will, out of loyalty or guilt. And some of you are here perhaps for the very first time.

Some of you are young and full of hope and anticipation; most of your Christmases are still in front of you. Some of you who are older are filled with memories of Christmases past that will never come again. Some of you are looking forward to getting back to the presents and the trees, and some of you dread going home. So hear this: whoever you are, and whatever you’re feeling, I’m glad you’re here.

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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I ask a lot of questions, it comes with the job. But around this time of year I tend to ask the same question over and over: “What’s the best Christmas present you’ve ever received?” And the funny thing is, people have the hardest time answering. And not because they have so many gifts with which that have to weigh out and evaluate their answer, but because they just can’t remember.

For instance, can any of you remember what you opened three years ago on Christmas morning? What about last year?

Of course, there’s a better question to ask: “What’s one of your most beloved Christmas memories?” People can answer that one, and the response is almost always about spending time with a particular person; a beloved spouse, or child, or grandmother, or friend.

That’s what we remember most about Christmases past, the people we spend time with. It’s all we have to give to another, it’s all we really want to receive, and it’s what God gives to us.

Not a present under a tree, not a trite response to a prayerful need. God gives himself to us at Christmas.

There’s just something about Christmas that’s different. And there’s nothing quite like an old-fashioned Christmas. Do you know what I mean? A Christmas where all the kids actually showed up, all the presents were wrapped in time, there were no iPhones to distract us from conversations, no drones to charge before their first flight. Old-fashioned Christmases were all about the family, and the singing of carols, and feeling the warmth of the fire.

My father grew up in Germany, and his most vivid memories of old Christmases were waiting to see what would happen to the Christmas tree. Because unlike our contemporary trees filled with pre-lit LED lights that can do more than a stage production, his Christmas trees were covered in real candles. And on every Christmas Eve every candle would be painstakingly lit, and my father would sit there, like any young child would, waiting for the whole thing to catch on fire.

An old-fashioned Christmas.

There’s a church in our community that worships in a new building, but they still have the original sanctuary on the property. And all year long it just stands there off in the corner like the forgotten island of misfit toys, until Christmas Eve when they open the doors, brush off the dust, light the kerosene lanterns and have an old-fashioned Christmas service. That was the case, until a few years ago when they forgot to open a window, and the kerosene lamps sucked up all the oxygen and parishioners started passing out left and right.

But a real old-fashioned Christmas, which is to say a biblical Christmas, is altogether different. The strange new world of scripture opens up for us a scene where kings rage and wickedness rules the day, where the threat of taxation forces young couples to retreat to the comfort of their parents’ homes, and countries who think of themselves as the very best have forgotten the very least.

            You know, completely unlike today.

It’s strange how Christmas, at least the version we encounter at the mall, becomes a dream. We escape into the Christmases of the past, falsely assuming they held a tinge of perfection. But in the bible, Christmas is no dream; it is reality. And it is one that begins in the dark.

The darkness – evil, sin, suffering, distress, destruction – they are very much part of the world, even if we’re made to believe they are absent during Christmas. We live in a time of war, violence, anger, and wrongful use of power. And the darkness is not just out there, beyond the comfort of the sanctuary, it is very much here as well. The darkness of family fights, disease and death, aging parents, rebellious children, fear and guilt, loneliness, and shame.

And we have to take the darkness seriously, even when we’d rather not. We take the darkness seriously because Isaiah certainly did, because darkness is very much part of our experience, and because darkness is what the light of Christ makes it’s way into.

This time of year challenges us to search for meaning. I mean, every bad Hallmark channel movie struggles to define the reason for this season, but the closest we can get to the meaning of Christmas is right here in Isaiah: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

Light is how we experience the presence of God, the arrival of grace, mercy, and peace. Light shines in the darkness.

That’s why we always end Christmas Eve worship with the lighting of candles. It is a strange and beautiful thing because it begins in the dark!

Our candles, as a witness to the one Christ candle, burn as a promise, a pledge, and perhaps as an act of defiance. Our flickering candles are what the life of faith look like as it resists the evil temptations of the world.

It looks like our faith because it is fragile.

Our flames are as fragile as a new baby born into the worst circumstances.

opt-the-day-after-christmas from Life Magazine Jamie Wyeth

But new life always starts in the dark, whether it’s a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark.

It is a strange, subversive, and dynamic way to change the world. It runs counter to all our assumptions of what it means to hold power. It is fragile like a flame, like a baby born in a manger, and like our faith can be at times.

But one flame, one baby, one faithful hope can be all that it takes to spark a rebellion that changes everything.

An old-fashioned Christmas is challenging because it is truer than all of the perfect manger scenes on our mantles and inflated on our front lawns. The incarnation of God is not some spiritual and mythical concept; it is very much the totality of God taking on flesh to enter this world of ours with all its agonies and joys, sorrows and splendor.

For a fleeting moment, we might experience a time where all is calm and all is bright while we are in this place holding our candles high. But we do so with the knowledge that the world still marvels at the darkness. So come to feast at this, Christ’s table, greet one another in the love that Christ offers us, and declare your defiance of the world’s expectations through the fragile flickering flame.

Because tonight, a night unlike any other night, we join together to wonder at the mystery of God’s power embodied in the fragile flesh of a newborn baby. Tonight, we join together as God’s light that shines in the darkness. Tonight we remember what an old-fashioned Christmas really looks like. Amen.

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We Start With The End

Luke 1.46-55

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

There’s a grocery right around the corner from my house and I go there way too often. I’d like to blame it on the strange hours of church work, or my incredible cooking skills that sends me off looking for strange and rare ingredients, but honestly having a toddler requires visiting the grocery store with regularity.

I go enough to know when not to go. For instance: Sunday afternoons are the absolute worst. They are the worst because people like me remember all the things they forget to pick up earlier in the week and decide to go at the exact same time as everyone else.

And during the holiday season, it’s all the worse.

So, of course, it was on Sunday afternoon that I found myself at the grocery store with the always wonderful assortment of necessary items in my basket: baby wipes, chocolate morsels, and deodorant.

And I was not alone: every aisle was filled with families and individuals frantically seeking out all the items on their list. Some moved at a snail’s pace checking all of the nutritional values for every single item, while others were just swiping items into their carts indiscriminately. Like all stores around this season, there were older couples smiling at babies, young couples avoiding the babies, and babies crying at everyone.

I held my requisite items and dashed as quickly as I could to the “10 Items or Less” aisle which, of course, was filled with many people with way more than 10 items. And so, I practiced my Christian virtue, and I tried being patient and non-judgmental.

And that’s when the fight broke out.

Four people up from me in the line stood a young woman having just shoved the cashier across the conveyer belt. From my vantage point I could only make out brief words and lots of loud noises. There was some disagreement about payment, and then insults started flying, and then arms started moving, and the rest of us in line just stood there doing what we do best when we go to the grocery store: we distracted ourselves with the trite headlines on bad magazines, we glanced at our watches, and rechecked our email inboxes on our phones for the third time in a row.

Eventually, after the items had been sorted and the argument came to its conclusion with the manager stepping in, the young woman began weeping. “I’m just so hungry,” she said, “please let me take something.” And the cashier politely responded, “Ma’am, if we gave you something for free we’d have to give something to everybody.” And with that, they told her to leave or they’d call the police.

And we all stood there, doing nothing.

Today is the 4th, and final, Sunday of Advent. Some of you are here because you’re eagerly awaiting tonight and tomorrow morning, some of you are probably thinking more about what’s under the tree than what’s in store for worship, some of you are waiting in deep grief thinking about how all the best Christmases are behind you, and still yet some of you are here with the hope that you will receive a little more hope.

This is the day when the pre-Christmas frenzy is at its zenith. Many of you will rush out of church this morning to take care of all the remaining items on your list because Christmas hits us like a brick wall tomorrow. And it is at this precise moment, with all the fear and fervor, that we are treated to the voice of a poor young Jewish girl with a song of praise.

Mary sings her song in declaration of the new arrival of God made manifest in her womb. She not only accepts her call to bear God in the flesh, but also marvels at God’s amazing grace that will, and perhaps already has, come to fruition in the promise in her womb.

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Mary’s song, her Magnificat, begins by celebrating the greatness of God: among the entirety of the world, God chose to bestow God’s favor on Mary, a lowly servant of God. Then she proclaims God’s liberating compassion for the poor. She declares that God will flip the expectations of the world upside down, and that nothing will ever be the same. Mary identifies the God growing in her womb as the God who identifies with the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.

And, at its best, Mary’s song is just another verse in God’s great song to humanity. A song that begins with “Let there be light” that transitions to “I will be your God, and you will be my people,” and finds its chorus in, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

But the tense has changed.

            In God’s initial covenant it is all about what will come to pass, but in Mary’s song, God has already acted and changed the cosmos, prior to Jesus’ birth.

Mary sings amidst a world suffering under oppression, and even though we are far removed from the days of Mary, things can look pretty grim these days as well.

I’ve come to find that because we know the story of Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem, the angels and shepherds, all of it so well, that it no longer shakes us the way that it once did. Instead of being rocked by the fulfilled promises of Mary’s Magnificat, we imagine Christmas as portrayed by little children wearing bed sheets and pipe cleaner angel wings.

But the story is as real as the person sitting next to you, and it demands our attention and reaction.

On the front of your bulletin you’ll find a modern Mary and Joseph.

I am almost positive that the image will offend most of us in church this morning. But, to be frank, if you’re here in worship on a Sunday morning that also falls on Christmas Eve, you’re probably the kind of Christian who can handle the offense.

The image shows Mary and Joseph as if they were waiting outside the 7-11 down the street from our church. And the attention to detail is what shakes me when I see the image: Mary wears a Nazareth High School hoodie, reminding us that she was truly a young woman. She wears an engagement ring around her finger, given to her by Jose, otherwise known as Joseph. There’s no vacancy at Dave’s City Motel (The city of David: Bethlehem). And Mary even rests under the star, though this one is neon and serves as an advertisement for an adult beverage.

This image might come across as upsetting, and if it does, it’s only because we’ve lost sight of how offensive the Christmas story really is: God chose these people to bring the incarnation into the world. God chose these people to right all the wrongs committed by the world. God chose Mary’s womb to start the story that ends with an empty tomb.

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I am not proud to admit that we all kept standing there while the woman in the grocery store ran away out of shame, fear, embarrassment, and hunger; a hunger that I will probably never know; a hunger that most of you will probably never experience. But I’m positive it’s a hunger that Mary knew.

Mary was the “least of these,” a phrase we throw around far too often without contemplation. She, in the midst of a frightening life, perhaps among the pangs of hunger, declared that in her womb was the coming change that would reverse the doom.

She, as the favored one, saw what would be accomplished by God’s promise before it even happened. She, like us, knew the end of the story. God’s story in Christ, in Mary, is offensive simply because it is so contrary to the world’s expectations, and even our own.

If we encountered the couple on the front of our bulletin, there’s a good chance that we would treat them the same way that others and I treated that woman at the grocery store: with indifference.

We’ve got our own problems to worry about: children to feed, presents to wrap, in-laws to impress. We haven’t got time to feed the hungry when we’ve got bills to pay. It’s hard to think about bringing down the mighty when we feel so powerless.

And you know what? That’s okay. It’s okay because this transformative work is God’s business. We get to participate in this work with God for sure, but in Mary’s song she rightly points away from herself to the one who is, was, and is to come:

            God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

            God has demonstrated his incredible strength.

            God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

            God has brought down the powerful from their thrones.

            God has lifted up the lowly.

            God has filled the hungry with good things.

            God has sent the rich away empty.

            And God did, and does, all of this in Christ Jesus, his Son, our Lord.

Like Mary, we start at the end. We read the Magnificat in the knowledge that the tomb will be empty. We hear Mary’s song as a triumphant declaration about how God changed, and changes, the world in the incarnation and the resurrection. In these words we experience the past, present, and future of God’s reign.

The great challenge of following Jesus is cultivating the ability, like Mary, to see God’s promises as already having come to pass. Such that, instead of ignoring the woman at the store, or the couple on the corner, we see them as intimately involved in God’s toppling of the powers and principalities; that, instead of accepting the status quo, we recognize how all of us are works in progress; that instead of passively accepting this song, we hear it for the controversy that it truly is.

Our God is scandalous. Our God chooses an old couple in Abraham and Sarah to mark the covenant between God and humanity, a couple we might relegate to a retirement home. Our God chooses a little shepherd boy named David to bring down the mighty Goliath, a boy we might chastise in church for being too loud. Our God chooses an unwed pregnant teenager to bring about the one who will lift up the lowly and bring down the mighty, a girl that we might judge from afar without offering assistance.

We are so steeped in the world of our own making that we forget how scandalous our God truly is. This season in particular has the capacity to bring out the very best, and the very worst in us. But Mary, in her remarkable song, reminds us that wealth and power have no ultimate influence in the realm of God’s kingdom. In fact, they are used to serve the lowly.

            That’s not a popular message to bear during Christmas, but it wasn’t popular during the time of Mary either. In fact, that’s the message that got Jesus killed. But, thanks be to God, we know that what started in the womb was also there in the empty tomb. Amen.

Keep The Cross In Christmas

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Rubén Rosario Rodríguez about the readings for Christmas Eve [Year B] (Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-20). Ruben is an Associate Professor in the Department of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. He is passionate about Liberation Theology and keeping others honest about Karl Barth. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the temptation (and need) to preach political sermons on Christmas Eve, the themes of light and darkness, singing new songs on one of the highest attended worship services of the year, the fragility of victory, trembling in church, and keeping the cross in Christmas. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Keep The Cross In Christmas
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When The Good News Sounds Like Bad News

Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people who the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings fort its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

My very first sermon, while a teenager, was on Paul’s description of the body of Christ from 1 Corinthians. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

I don’t remember a lot about the sermon save for the fact that it wasn’t a very good one. To begin, I had never preached before, nor had I given a lot of thought to what preaching was supposed to sound like. Second, the text itself was plenty confusing on its own without some teenager trying to wax lyrical about it. And finally, it wasn’t very good because I ended with an overly long description of the human body that bled into a call for each person in the congregation to figure out what body part they were for Jesus, and get to work.

In my head this sounded like a good charge to propel the congregation forward to do the work of Jesus in the world. But what really happened was a bunch of people left church that morning trying really hard to not think about being Jesus’ thigh, or clavicle, or pinky toe.

Jesus’ first sermon was on the text from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Though upon reading from the scroll to the gathered congregation, he rolled it back up, sat down, and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And, as scripture tells us, when the people heard what he said, they were filled with rage, drove him out of the synagogue, and forced him to the brow of a cliff so that they could hurl him over the edge.

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I get the frustration people can feel with regard to preaching. It wasn’t all that long ago that I was sitting on the other side of the altar during worship. But what kind of sermon is worth killing over?

Isaiah, like Jesus, was tasked with speaking to a people divided, where leaders played to the powerful and privileged, justice was available for the highest bidder, and inequality reigned supreme. The prophet attempted to bring good news to a people where isolation was more important than community, and where word of God’s extensive work was met with frustration, disapproval, and even violence.

How can good news sound so bad?

It’s all well and fine when we hear about what God is going to do for us, but when the scope of God’s salvation stretches to those other people, it’s a little harder to swallow.

Isaiah paints a picture of God’s work: The oppressed will hear good news, the brokenhearted will be healed, the captives will be set free, the jubilee year will begin.

In other words: the poor and the weak will be given power and strength, the people who mourn for better days will be rewarded, people in jail will be released, and all debts shall be forgiven instantaneously.

Now, if we were in prison, or heavily in debt, or ostracized to the outskirts of society, this would sound like really good news.

But if we made money off of those in prison, or grew powerful by lending money, or sat in the places of respect and comfort, this would sound like really bad news.

The people of God during the time of Isaiah needed hope. They were oppressed, imprisoned, and brokenhearted. And through their ruins God was going to spring forth new life, their offspring would be known among the nations, and they would be blessed.

As Bob Dylan put it, the times they were a changin’.

But it’s hard for us to side with those who are oppressed, because we’ve got it pretty good. We were able to make it here for worship on a Sunday morning, we don’t have to worry about being persecuted for our faith, and should something terrible happen we know that we have a church that will help to see us through.

It’s difficult reading Isaiah’s words because we’ve grown so comfortable with God’s love that we forget God has the capacity to hate. God is love such that all things that go against love are against God.

Isaiah boldly proclaims that God hates robbery and wrongdoing, God hates when the people take advantage of others, and God hates injustice. Which is really problematic when we live in a society that rewards those who make the most with the least effort, who prey on the weak to grow strong, and who define their own understanding of justice.

Here is where Isaiah hits home for us. Because on the surface, it might look like we’ve got it all together, but even the best among us have hidden struggles under the surface. There are things going on in our lives that we don’t want anybody else to know about and we try so hard to keep these secrets and shames bottled up. Christmas, however, has the power to reveal even the deepest secrets we keep locked away. There are the broken relationships, the ignored addictions, the denied depression, the raging affair, the greed, the hatred, the fear.

So, with all of this bad news tucked away from prying eyes, where is the Good News? Why read these words from Isaiah on the third Sunday of Advent, a day dedicated entirely to joy?

When Jesus sat down to preach for the first time, he declared that he was the one who would bring God’s transformation to a broken world. In him all would be made new. He looked out at that congregation with all their expectations about what God would do, and he exceeded them exponentially.

One of the challenges with scripture, and in particular preaching, is wrestling with what and who the Word is for. Is this text from the prophet Isaiah meant for the people of his time, and his time alone? Are the proclamations from the pulpit limited to the Advent of God in Christ and the changes that began in Bethlehem? Are Isaiah’s word meant for us today in this place at this time?

But there is yet another angle by which we can approach God’s Word today… What if its less about the past, the days of Isaiah? What if its about more than the arrival of Jesus, what if this text is describing the already, but not yet, of the future?

God most certainly sent Jesus to inaugurate a new time, a new beginning for God’s people. In Christ the Good News entered the world, but the vision of Isaiah hasn’t come to complete fruition; at least not yet.

The people receiving Jesus’ first sermon were uncomfortable with his proclamation, enough that the wanted to end his life. They couldn’t imagine a God who would so subvert and change the priorities of existence. They were far away from encountering a God who would resurrect his Son from beyond the grave.

They, in some ways, were a lot like us.

They had families to take care of, debts to manage, and secrets to keep hidden. And to hear this Jesus say that God was going to bless everyone, and in particular the people not in the synagogue, is hard to swallow when you consider all the problems you have.

So, it would seem that we have to ask ourselves a question, one we might not want to consider… If this word angered and frightened the people so much that they wanted to harm the messenger, what does it say about our church today? If we were to take stock of who we are and what we’re doing, is this church in line with God’s vision from Isaiah, are we helping to turn the world upside down?

            If not, what more can we do?

God has a vision for us here, and for Christians everywhere. God dreams about the coming future, and with God’s help it can become a reality for us.

God desires a community of faith where all are welcomed. And all means all. This implies a day when those who mourn and those who rejoice can sit next to one another in the pews, where the wealthy and poor can befriend one another, where gay and straight can feast at the table at the same time, where even republicans and democrats can find common ground.

God dreams of the day when the ancient ruins of the past will become the foundation for a new way, when the old can teach the young and the young can teach the old. This coming reality is founded upon the belief that all will know the story that reshapes all stories and that story, God’s story, will have more power than anything else.

God hopes for a day where our allegiances are not divided amongst a sea of desperation, but instead directed totally toward the Lord.

God yearns for the arrival of a new day where we cast away the idols that dominate our lives, where we replace the ashes of destruction with garlands of beauty, where justice rains down like waters.

And when that day comes, when the future breaks into the present, we shall dance and greatly rejoice in the Lord. Every fiber of our beings will exult in the Lord. When we look around we will see one another clothed in garments of salvation, with robes of righteousness, and jewels of grace. The world will cease to be what it is now, and will be like the new heaven and the new earth where tears and shame and weeping will be no more.

That day will come, though we know not when nor how. But we know that is coming. We know that it is coming because God is, was, and always will be be the Lord of all things. We know that it is coming because God always makes a way where there is no way. We know that it is coming because even when the good news sounds like bad news, it propels us into a frame of existence we never could have imagine.

We know all of this because the Good News started when Jesus was born into that tiny manger, and all of creation was changed forever. In that one divine moment the Lord caused righteousness and praise to spring up in new ways and in new places. Such that even today, people like you and me, are hearing the Good News, and it’s changing us forever. Amen.

The Strange New World

Psalm 78.1-7

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark saying from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a decree in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children; that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.

A father was with his five year old daughter last Christmas, and it was the first time she ever asked what the holiday meant. He explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked the more she wanted to know about this “Jesus” so the father bought a kid’s bible and began reading to her every night.

She loved it.

They read the stories about Jesus’ birth, the miracles he produced, and teachings he offered. And the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from Jesus, like “love your neighbor as you love yourself” and “blessed are those who mourn” and “the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” They read and the read and at some point the daughter said, “Daddy, I really like Jesus.”

Right after Christmas they were driving around town and they passed by a huge Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix out on the front lawn. The cross was impossible to miss, as was the figure nailed to it. The daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad! Who’s that?

The father realized in that moment that he never told his daughter the end of the story. So he began telling her how it was Jesus on the cross, that he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and unnerving that they thought the only way to stop him was to kill him, and they did.

And the daughter was silent the rest of the ride.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of what Christmas meant, the father took his daughter out to lunch on Martin Luther King Jr. day because her school was closed for the holiday. While they were sitting at the table waiting for their food, the daughter saw the local newspaper’s front-page story with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it. She quickly point to toward the picture and said, “Dad! Who’s that?

“Well,” he began, “that’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.” And she said, “For Jesus?!”

“Yeah,” he said, “For Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like love you neighbor as yourself.”

The dad said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that, but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

And the young girl was silent for a minute or two, starring down at the table, but when she looked up at her dad she had tears in her eyes and she said, “Dad, did they kill him too?”

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It doesn’t happen often, but I love when a passage from scripture is straightforward. With the daunting amount of passages in both the Old and New Testaments that remain frustratingly ambiguous, it is refreshing to encounter a text that is so simple with its claims and expectations.

Listen up! Open your ears to what I am about to say regarding the mighty acts of God! I will declare the stories from the past, and we will not hide them from the children. They must hear about all the wonders of God. The Lord commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so they would teach their children, so that none of us would forget what God has done. Listen! We cannot fall back into the problematic rhythms of those who came before us, a stubborn and rebellious generation. We have to tell the story.

What follows in the psalm for today is a record of Israel’s history in song. The psalmist sets up a challenge: to remember the mighty acts of God for future generations, and then the psalmist declares the story of God with God’s creation. The narrative is so strong that the psalmist will not depart from it. The old old story has become so important to the psalmist that sharing it with others is the most important thing in the cosmos.

We have a member here at our church named Glenn who has dedicated himself over the last few years to rebooting our Children’s ministry. But he never really wanted to do it. It’s not a passion he’s had his entire life.

It actually all started when he volunteered to be the bible storyteller at Vacation Bible School a few years ago. Every morning he got the right costumes and ushered the kids into the strange new world of the bible through his stories. And one day, without really thinking about it, he simply asked, “Who is Jesus?”

The room was silent except for one girl who was brave enough to raise her hand with any semblance of an answer.

That was enough for Glenn to be jolted toward the importance of telling the story. That was enough for Glenn to commit himself to sharing Jesus with as many children as possible. That was enough for Glenn to hear the words of the psalmist echo through the sands of time: we will tell the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord.

There was a time when asking children about Jesus would’ve been unnecessary. There was a time when most families in a community went to church on a Sunday morning simply out of habit. There was a time when preachers could preach on a text without providing context.

But that time is gone.

Instead of embracing God’s story as our story, we’ve embraced other narratives. We don’t tell our children about Jesus, we expect the church to take care of that for us, much like we assume that schools will make them into perfect little citizens.

On Tuesday morning Lindsey and I brought Elijah to our local polling location to vote for Virginia’s next governor. I held him in my arms while Lindsey went to sit down and scan over her ballot, and while I was standing off to the side one of the poll workers gave me a little wave and said, “It’s so precious that you’re teaching your son about the value of voting!”

Is that what I want to instill in the coming generation represented by my son? Am I pleased to know that he will inherit a political structure that celebrates divisiveness while degrading cooperation? Am I more inclined to teach him about a political race than about God’s grace?

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The psalmist, long ago, believed in retelling the story to help shape the people of God. The psalmist believed that in going back to their origins, remembering who they are and whose they are, the people would always find the living God. When we tell the story that is our story, we become shaped by the Word to be Christ body in the world today.

But what is the story?

When we open the scriptures we are with Adam and Eve in the Garden. We hear the Lord warn them about the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We hear the slithering serpent calling them (and us) to rebel against the One who is love. And then Adam and Eve reach for that forbidden fruit inevitably driving them away from the Lord and into the unknown. We can feel that there is something of ourselves in these two standing on the edge of Eden looking back to what they once were and unsure of what will come in the days ahead.

We are with Noah kissing the earthy ground after the flood. We see the rainbow cast across the sky and we feel the colors reflecting off the pools of water still being sucked into the ground. We hear the promise of God to never abandon creation again. We believe in Noah there is a new creation, another chance for humanity to get things right. But then we see him tilling the ground, preparing the vines, and eventually getting drunk from the wine. In him we see the failures of the past reaching forward into the present and we hope for something better in the days ahead.

We are with Abraham in a strange land. We hear a call from the Lord commanding him to go to a land that has been prepared. We hear the promise, “I will make of you’re a great nation and your descendants will be more numerous than the stars.” We feel the Spirit moving through the space as the story continues lurching forward.

We are with Moses on a rocky hillside. We feel the warmth of a burning bush. We heard the voice of the Lord speak to the wandering shepherd: “Tell them I AM sent you.” We participate in the beginning of a call that will forever define an entire nation of people, a delivery from slavery to Egypt, and freedom in the Promised Land. We hear these strange words and promises and we know they are unlike anything else we have ever read. We know the story, and we think it might be about us, but it’s about God.

We are with David when he puts the rock into the sling and takes down the mighty Goliath.

We are with Solomon when he prays for the Lord to give him wisdom.

We are with Isaiah when the coal is placed on his lips.

And then we are there when everything changes; that strange and bewildering moment in a manger in Bethlehem when the Word becomes flesh. When a man and a woman flee to save a child’s life. When that baby grows to be a man who was like no other man. When His words are cause for pause and alarm and delight and fear. With unending power and resonating grace he calls out: “Follow me!

And they do.

Through him the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the hungry eat, the powerful are humbled, the poor are made rich.

And then we are there when the sky turns black. We hear His final words and we feel a faint echo of those first words from so long ago. But that echo continues for three days until it reaches a triumphant crescendo in an empty tomb, in resurrection.

We are there with the disciples in the upper room. We witness the Spirit fill their mouths with words to proclaim. We go with them across the sea and over the dry land. We feel the water of baptism and new birth. We smell the bread being broken and we taste the wine at the table.

And we know it is for us.

We tell this story because it is our story. And, of course, this isn’t just about teaching children the story. It’s about all of us, whether we’re eight or eighty. We come together in this place, all of us, to remember over and over the great acts of God in the world. We vacillate between creation and redemption, back and forth, to remind one another what God has done for us, and what God continues to do through us.

Telling the story pushes us further through the narrative that has no end. In it we find people and places that boggle our minds. We read decrees that shatter our understanding of what is real. We experience moments of profound joy and profound sorrow. And we find ourselves in the story when we did not know we had a story.

So, tell the story. Tell the story when you are up and when you are down, when all is well and when all is hell, tell the story when you are received and when you are nowhere believed. Tell the story until sinners are justified, until the devil is terrified, until Jesus is magnified, and until God is satisfied! Tell the story. Amen.

Why Do We Give?

Matthew 22.15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

When I was in my final year of seminary, I had a friend who asked me to fill in and preach at his church one Sunday morning. He had labored for the previous years as a full time student and a full time pastor and needed a little break. Also – he was given tickets to a Carolina Panthers football game, though I was forbidden from telling his church that where he was instead of with them on a Sunday morning for worship.

The tiny United Methodist Church was in the middle on nowhere North Carolina, and I was nervous about leading worship for a congregation that I had never met. However, I figured God is good and that God would show up even if my sermon fell flat.

The sanctuary was simple and charming with white walls and florescent lights hanging from the ceiling, there was a cross above the altar that was draped with an American flag, and it was so quiet I actually thought that maybe I had showed up at the wrong church.

However, within a couple minutes, the lay leader of the church arrived and greeted me enthusiastically as if I was a first time visitor of the church, only to later realize that I was the stand-in pastor for the day. He quickly guided me through the sanctuary, gave me the grand tour (he even showed off the recently renovated bathroom) and then informed me that he was the head usher, the liturgist, the organist, and the treasurer.

From what I can remember the service went fairly well, through most of the congregation was utterly bewildered by academic deconstruction of an apocalyptic prophecy from the book of Daniel (something I thank gave up doing that day), and there was an infant who wailed throughout the entirety of the sermon. I like to think that she liked my preaching so much that it drove her to tears.

When the service ended, I finally had a better chance to look around the sanctuary and I noticed a list on the wall behind the pulpit for the hymns of the day, the offering brought in from the week before, and the deficit regarding the annual budget. There in big numbers for everyone to see was how far away they were from keeping up with their plan, and it was a staggering amount of money.

On my way out I thanked the lay-leader/usher/organist/treasurer for the opportunity to preach and asked why the church felt the need to display the deficit for everyone to see every Sunday.

I’ll never forget how casually he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Guilt is the only way to get them to give.”

Offering

Why do we give? Taking time to talk about financial giving in the church is about as awkward and uncomfortable as it gets. Money, in general, is one of the taboo topics of normal conversations. We don’t ask how much someone makes in a year, even if we’re curious. We avoid asking for financial assistance or help because it requires too much vulnerability. But then we take the taboo subject of money, and put it together with religion (another taboo) and we get the double whammy of things we don’t like talking about.

It seems some things never change.

The Pharisees and the Herodians wanted to trap Jesus in his words. “Tell us,” they said, “should we pay our taxes to the emperor, or not?” There’s no good answer to the question. If Jesus said, “Yes, you must pay your taxes” it would cause a rift among those who suffered under the weight of dictatorial Roman rule. And if Jesus said, “No, you don’t owe the government anything,” his critics could have charged him with insurrection and he would have been executed.

And it was all about money.

Jesus however, answered in a way that has captured the hearts and minds of Christians for millennia: “Bring me a coin… whose head is this and whose title?” The people responded, “The emperor’s.” And Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And when the crowds heard his response they were amazed and they went away.

2000 years later and taxes and money and giving still drive us crazy. It’s a hard subject to talk about. I certainly don’t enjoy it. We, and by we I really mean you and we, we would rather have a service about grace and mercy than one about sin and sacrifice. Which is strange when we consider the fact that Jesus talked about money more than just about anything else during his earthly ministry. For Jesus, money was a subject worth confronting because it had taken over the lives of his peers and it was leading them on a path of disappointment, regret, and fear.

We don’t like talking about money because what we do with our money is personal and private right?

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A UMNS photo illustration by Mike DuBose. Accompanies UMNS story #099. 3/20/12.

To talk about giving in the church, to address the subject of why we give, we have to get personal. It would be shameful for me to stand here each and every week calling for the gathered body to give your gifts to God if I, myself, was afraid to talk about my own giving. If we want to be a church of gifts, then we must first be a church of vulnerability and honesty.

Before I became a pastor, I rarely gave to the church. I have vivid memories of sitting in church throughout my adolescence, and feeling waves of guilt as I passed the offering plate over my lap to whomever else was in the pew. It helped that I was a kid and had no money to give in the first place but the guilt was still there.

It is a powerful thing here at Cokesbury when the children come up for their message and they place their offering in the plate. They are creating a habit of generosity that was largely absent from my childhood.

By the time I made it to college and seminary, I still attended church but rarely gave to the church. I certainly volunteered my time, led mission trips, and taught bible studies, but giving money to the church was not on my radar.

Then I was appointed to my first church. I had a steady income, and Lindsey and I started to tithe. And honestly it was really hard. We were a young married couple with seminary debt, and then we had a baby. Yet, we covenanted with God and one another to give 10%. In the first months it was harder that I thought it would be. I would find myself thinking about those thousands of dollars that I could have spent on other things, but we got into the habit and we kept giving. And after a while it became pretty easy because I just withheld the 10% from my paycheck and after time I stopped thinking about it at all.

But then we came here. We had to move and buy a house. It was easy when the money was taken out automatically, but now we needed to write a check and place it in the plate. There is a place of power and privilege that comes with being a pastor of the church, particularly when it comes to money. I get to sit up here while the offering plates make their way throughout the sanctuary. But the covenant to give is not one for pastors alone, nor is it for laypeople alone. The covenant to give is one made by all Christians, one that is challenging, but one that is ultimately what faith is all about.

My conversion toward tithing did not happen in a big shiny moment, but was a gradual transformation. The more I give, the longer the habit continues, the better it becomes, and things start to change.

            Instead of imagining what I could do with the money I’ve given to church, I’ve started tangibly witnessing what the money I give is doing for the church and for the kingdom.

Give, Donate, Charity

Giving to the church requires a conversion; it is built on a vision where we recognize how our blessings can be used to bless others. It is built on the knowledge that we give because so much has been given to us. It is built on the call to give not out of guilt, but out of generosity.

We are called to give because we have a shared vision and are invited into the mission of God through the church. Even a seemingly small act of generosity can grow into something far beyond what we could ever imagine – The creation of a community of love in this world.

Our generosity helps God build the kingdom here on earth.

But, we should not be expected to give, nor feel inclined to give without knowing why or to what we are giving. To just stand before you and say, “give give give” or to have a sign on the wall about out finances prevents us from developing strong relationships with the people and programs we serve. So, here are just three aspects of what our church does with our gifts.

At Cokesbury we believe in providing meaningful, fruitful, and life changing worship every week of the year. We plan months in advance, connect messages with the music, and look for imaginative ways to respond to God’s Word in the world. This means that we keep our sanctuary in the best shape possible for the worship of God, and use the great gifts of all involved in the church to make it happen. As a church we regularly welcome first-time visitors to discover God’s love in this place and help to develop professions of faith in Jesus Christ.

At Cokesbury, we believe in nurturing those in the midst of their faith journeys. We spend a significant amount of time and resources to help disciples grow in their faith and love of God and neighbor. We have numerous classes and opportunities to study God’s Word, whether its through Sunday School, Thursday Night Bible Studies, or Vacation Bible School. Everyone that participates in any of our groups is able to take what they learn and apply it to their daily lives whether they’re eight or eighty.

And at Cokesbury, we believe in witnessing to our faith in service beyond ourselves. We strive to serve those in need through a mosaic of opportunities in order to be Christ’s body for the world. Every year we have apportioned giving that directly impacts people in our local community and across the world. We provide support to agencies in our area like Hilda Barg and ACTS, and others. We help people with acute needs through discretionary accounts. And we have a great number of other missional activities that are all focused on helping other experiences God’s love through the work of the church.

We give from our abundance to bless others. Whether it’s the people in the pews next to us who gather for worship, kids from the community who show up for church events, or the countless people around the world who need help. We give out of generosity because so much has been given to us.

Sometimes when we read the story about Jesus’ response to the question of taxes, we liable to water it down to something like: Jesus leaves the choice up to us. Rather than falling into the trap of the Pharisees or the Herodians, rather than siding with the empire or inciting insurrection, Jesus breaks down the question and put the ball in our court.

But that leaves the passage without saying much of anything and prevents it from ringing out the stinging truth: We can put all of our trust in our money, we can use it to do all sorts of things in the world, but if we think that it all belongs to us, or has come to us simply because we deserve it, then we’ve failed to recognize the One from whom all blessings flow.

This passage about money isn’t so much about whether or not we should pay our taxes. Instead, it calls into question what we are doing with our money, and why we are doing what we are doing. It forces us to confront whether or not we believe God is the source of our being, or if we believe material objects can bring us satisfaction in this life. It begs us to reconsider what we’ve spent our money on, and if it helped the kingdom at all.

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Yet, as Christians, we believe that we, and everything we hold dear, belong to God. Amen.

The Church Doesn’t Exist To Make A Difference

I’m in my fifth year of full-time ministry and I just received my first piece of anonymous “hate” mail. I use the word “hate” loosely, because at no point in the letter am I threatened or made to feel afraid, but the person clearly hated a sermon of mine and took the time to write a full page with bolded words, underlined sentences, and even a section entirely in the color red.

On Sunday I preached a sermon about why Christians pray and in it I said: “…the missing demographic from the church, the so-called millennial generation, are missing because they (we) have yet to experience the kind of sorrow and fear that leaves people feeling anchorless. It doesn’t have much to do judgments about the relevancy of the church, but more to do with the fact that when someone feels like life is perfect, they don’t see how the church can make a difference. But that’s the thing: the church doesn’t exist to make a difference. The church exists to praise the living God who fills our lives with the kind of joy that sustains us through both the mountains and the valleys we experience. Church isn’t about us. It’s about God. And, to bring it full circle, all of us are in need of the prayer that leads to joy and the joy that leads to prayer, because all of us have something weighing us down… I love asking people if God’s has answered their prayers because the answer is almost always, “Yes.” But, most of the time, we can only see how God has answered our prayers while looking backward. We can only see how God has answered our prayers through the profound reflection on the time we’ve had with a community that has sustained us until we have eyes to see what God has done.”

And today, Wednesday, I received an anonymous letter ripping apart my claim that the Church doesn’t exist to make a difference. Basically, he/she feels that the church is only one of the ways for an individual to experience God in the world, and the the church has failed to take care of people in need, and therefore it’s up to people like the writer to support the needs left unattended in the world through political means and civic organizations.

I wish the person had included their name, or at least a way to respond to their criticism, such that we could have a conversation about the subject. But without any way to do so, I decided to put it up here on the blog in hopes that it reaches him/her:

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The Church Doesn’t Exist To Make A Difference

We have a book in the United Methodist Church called The Book of Discipline. In it, its paragraph 120 if you’re interested, we have the mission of the church written our plainly for all to read and understand: “The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Making disciples is at the heart of what it means to be a United Methodist. I mean, its what Jesus calls the disciples to do at the end of Matthew’s gospel (Go therefore and make disciples…). But making disciples is often confused with filling the pews; it results in having conversations about how to get more people in the building while neglecting to interact and connect with people already in the building, it results in infantile/surface level discipleship, and it results in working for the numbers instead of the kingdom.

And then we have this bit about transforming the world. Is that really our mission? Does the church exist to change the people and the community around us? Should that be our only focus? Does the church exist to make the world a better place?

The church is defined by the sacraments of communion and baptism in order to be a community of peace. The church, therefore, is called not to make the world a better place, but to be the better place God has already made in the world.

Today we are so steeped in the allure and promises of our political ideologies that we often superimpose them onto the church. We look to the mighty and the powerful so that we can learn how to change the world around us. But look at what makes the church the church: Jesus Christ. God is made manifest in the world not through the powerful, not through the expectations of the mighty, but through a baby born in a manger, through wandering Israelites, through tax collectors and fishermen, through a poor rabbi murdered by the state.

The church is already the better place God has made in the world.

But it’s hard for us to believe that.

It’s hard for us to believe that the church is the better place God has made in the world because many of us worship our government, or social programs, the way we once worshipped the Lord. We follow the never-ending political news-cycle like we once checked in on our brothers and sisters in faith. We read and repost articles about local civic organizations as if they are going to bring us salvation that we claim, through the Creed, that Jesus already brought.

Christians in America have played the political game for so long that we can almost no longer differentiate between America and God. Or, at the very least, we assume that if the church is not involved in the work of making the world a better place, than it’s not worth our time and attention.

In scripture, Jesus calls this behavior idolatry.

For far too long we’ve limited our imagination of the church to being the mechanism by which we can develop strategies that can, to put it in political terms, Make America Great Again or Make The World A Better Place. But that is not the task nor is it the mission of the church. The task of the church is to be a community of character that can survive as a witness to the truth.

All of this is not meant to be a critique of civic organizations that work to change the world, nor is it meant to be a critique of policies of the political right or left. Neither is it a denial of the importance of caring for the last, least, and lost in our communities. No, this is about our captivity to the presumption that organizations and political parties determine our lives more than the living God.

Yes, everyone is free to use their money and their time and their talents as they see fit. In our country we worship this freedom to a frightening degree (However, we tend to only relish in our freedom to say and do what we want, and the moment we encounter the other perspective we either cover our ears in anger, or we rush against them with vitriol.). We can try to do what we can to make the world a better and safer place.

But being a Christian is not about (political) freedom or being safe. After all, we Christians worship a crucified God and we seek to be in fellowship with the One who mounted the hard wood of the cross. Following Jesus is all about challenging the presumptions of the world with the truth of the lordship of Christ that often puts us in a place of danger. Following Jesus means believing the greatest freedom and power we’ve ever received did not come from the Declaration of Independence, or from giving money to a group like Kiwanis, but through Jesus Christ who died on a cross.

I do sincerely apologize for making a claim about the church not making a difference in the world. After all, I am a pastor because the church changed my life. But I also recognize that for as much as I want to attribute the difference I have experienced to the church, Jesus is the one who made all the difference.

We spend so much time thinking and living into a strange reality that assumes the church exists to serve the members of the church, or to make the world a better place. But that doesn’t have much to do with Jesus. Any political party and any civic organization can do lots of things to make their members happier and safer and better (at least in terms familiar to the world).

But the church, as the body of Christ, exists to be the better place God has already made in the world. God in Christ transformed the powers and principalities such that the world has been turned upside down. God in Christ captivates our hearts and souls by proclaim who we really are and whose we really are. God in Christ is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. God in Christ has made all the difference.