Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sermon for Christmas Eve '08

Dec 24, 2008
Scripture: John 1:1-5, 14-18
Sermon Title: "Magnificent Simplicity"
Rev. G
A few weeks ago on NPR they were discussing our country’s current financial state. With things being the way they are, they assumed people will cut back this Christmas with less parties, less food, less presents under the tree.
They interviewed a pastor on what good news he would share with people in regards to Christmas and the economy. His response was inspirational: look towards the manger. The manger, he said, is the stripped down reality of life.
The manger is where the bare minimum of what is needed exists. It was just Joseph and Mary- that is how Christ came into the world.
In essence, what the pastor was saying is that we can stop looking at Wall Street for where hope for the world will come and instead look at the magnificent simplicity of the manger.
That radio interview got me thinking about humbleness and simplicity. I recalled a story I had read years ago of a Christmas day celebrated by a small family living in a little house in the big woods. It’s a story told by Laurie Ingalls Wilder.
As the story goes, Christmas was coming. The Little House in Wisconsin was buried in snow, so much so that when Pa opened the door, the snow was as high as Laura’s head. Pa shoveled a path to the barn, checking to make sure the animals were safe. Laura and her sister stood on chairs by the window watching the snow glitter on the trees.
All that week Pa worked on three pieces of wood, whittling away, carefully, patiently using his jack-knife to create flowers and circles, crescent moons and a star. It was a bracket he was making for Ma, and when he was done, he hung it up on the wall, where Ma placed her collection of figurines.
Ma kept busy, cooking and baking good things for Christmas: salt-rising bread, Swedish crackers, baked beans with salt pork and molasses, vinegar pies, dried-apple pies, a big jar filled with cookies.
Ma boiled molasses and sugar together creating a thick syrup. Pa brought in pails full of fresh snow and they showed the girls how to pour the syrup on the snow, which hardened and became candy. They could each have one piece but the rest would be saved for Christmas Day.
On Christmas Eve the ringing of sleigh bells signaled the arrival of Aunt Eliza, Uncle Peter, and their three cousins, wrapped in coats and mufflers and shawls.
The little house in the Big Woods was now filled with activity. Their dogs leapt and yipped in the snow. The children went outside, playing a game in which they stood atop a tree stump, fell in the snow, then gently got out, making five holes in the snow shaped exactly like them.
The children played until it was bedtime. They hung their stockings by the fireplace, said their prayers and went to bed. As the firelight threw dancing shadows on the walls, the adults talked as Pa took out his fiddle and played "Red Heifer" and "Arkansas Dream".
The girls slept in one bed on the floor, Peter had the trundle bed. Aunt and Uncle slept in the big bed, Ma and Pa slept in a bed made on the attic floor.
In the morning the children woke at the same time, looked at each other, then rushed to their stockings. There was something in there! Santa had come! Dressed in their red flannels they shouted to see what they got.
In each stocking was pair of bright red-mittens and a long piece of candy cane with decorative notches. They were so happy they could barely speak.
Laura, the youngest of everyone, received a special gift: a rag doll with black button eyes, penciled eyebrows and curly hair made out of yarn. Laura was speechless. "Did you ever see such big eyes?" the adults said.
Laura sat on the bed and held the doll. After some prodding by her parents, Laura let each child hold her new doll, but was thankful when it was back in her arms.
The adults exchanged gifts. Aunt Eliza gave Ma a red apple stuck full of cloves. Ma gave Aunt Eliza a needle-book she had made.
Then cousin Peter and the men stepped outside to do the chores, the girls and women set the table and made pancakes shaped like little men.
It was too cold to play outside, so the children tried on and admired each other’s mittens, took small licks of their candy canes, laid on the floor and looked at their picture Bible.
Then it was time for the Christmas dinner. Plates were kept full with food. Afterwards the Aunt and Uncle and cousins prepared for the ride home. They wore their new mittens. Baked potatoes were placed in their pockets to keep them warm, hot irons were placed at their feet in the sled.
In just a short while the merry sound of bells were gone, and Christmas was over, but what a happy Christmas it had been!
It’s been over 25 years since I read that story, but for some reason it lodged in my brain. I think one reason is just how perplexed I was at what a big fuss the kids made over so little.
Mittens and a piece of candy? Are you for real? That would never have flown in my house.
And yet, I have always remembered that story, and after rereading it I understand why: it was about what Christmas is truly about: family, time spent together, humbleness, making the most of what you have, being thankful.
As an adult I admire the story even more: the images of cooking together, Pa’s patience as he created Ma’s gift, everyone sharing chores, sharing space, sharing the moment together and not going off into their own private rooms.
How magnificently simple the story is, and how much we can learn from it. Perhaps we can even benefit from going back (just a little bit) to a way of life in which things were simpler, and love was not expressed by hundreds of dollars in gifts but by hundreds of minutes spent in relationship, in time together, in creating memories.
The economy may not allow us to express our love for one another through financial means, but it doesn’t mean we can’t find other ways to express our love.
And for guidance, all we have to do is look towards the manger, all we have to do is go back to the beginning of time, all we have to do is begin embracing the words of John, Chapter 1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
Magnificently simple: In the beginning.
And what existed before the beginning? Nothing. Nothing but God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit living as a perfect trinity. But God has a desire for more. And so, as Genesis 1 states, God speaks "Let there be light". And there is light.
With Jesus and the Spirit present, God speaks out over the chaos of nothingness and begins the process of creating life and the world. God separates the light from the dark, God makes the heavens and the sky, sea and land, vegetation and fruit, sun and moon, God makes sea creatures, land animals, birds of the air, humans.
God takes a moment of chaotic nothingness and brings new life, new possibilities, and God calls it good.
Read the biblical narrative and you’ll hear how this happens again and again. God takes childless Abraham and Sarah and makes them the family that blesses all families. God works through Jacob’s messes, the problems his son Joseph faces, the slavery of the Israelites and brings new beginnings and new hope for the world.
And in the perfect fullness of time, when all Joseph and Mary had was a stable for shelter, God enters into human history as baby Jesus. As John states "...the Word became flesh and lived amongst us...From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace."
God does the most amazing thing: he transcends time and space and comes to us in the fragile, simple, lovely form of a baby boy. In that action God invites us to know him in a way previously unheard of before.
By becoming flesh and making himself known in the magnificent simplicity of a stable, God enters into human history, bringing with him a light that shines and puts darkness into the past tense.
In the magnificent simplicity of the stable God
becomes even more bound to us by becoming one of us, now able to identify with every aspect of life: joy and pain, suffering and loss, love and friendship, grief and death.
Perhaps most radical of all is how God chooses to come to us. Not as the son of a prince or a politician, not to a rich or well educated family. But a family that has nothing.
God gives up the magnificent otherworldliness of the heavens for the magnificent simplicity of the every day, to a man who makes a living with his hands, a young mother full of hope for her son..
Jesus who is God, who was with God when God created everything, is born in the midst of nothing. In a manger, stripped of all worldly possessions. Just the bare essentials: Mom, Dad, and God.
Not the internet, not a Wii or Guitar Hero, not even mittens and a candy cane.
Jesus, enters into the world humble, meek and mild. And we are the better for it.
By having the Word enter into our lives through the manger, we can hear, experience, and know God in ways never before possible; we are given an intimate access to the cosmic God who can be no stranger to us.
From that manger came the most profound hope. From that manger came truth and light, salvation and new life.
From the magnificent simplicity of the manger came the greatest person who ever walked the earth, bearing the greatest gift we could ever ask for: grace upon grace.
So, in the midst of all the economy is doing, in the midst of all we as a church, state and nation have been through, what we should remember this Christmas, and the Christmases to come is that the Good News is not about a multitude of gifts we can or can not afford.
As demonstrated by the manger, and seen in the Little House in the Big Woods, the Good News is that what matters most is the love we have for one another, the time we spend together and the light we bring into one another’s world.
The Good News is that in the magnificent simplicity of the manger God for once and for all showed that he can work even when there seems to be nothing to work with.
The good news is that even when it seems all is lost, God finds a way to make us found.
The good news is that even when the world around us appears at its darkest, God through the gift of Jesus Christ, is shining a light so bright it will guide us all home.
Christmas can’t be ruined because we can’t afford the most expensive things, but is enhanced by what we do have: the gifts of love, the gifts of time, the gifts of relationships.
The Good News is that God created the world out of nothing, and then, through the magnificent simplicity of the manger, God brought redemption to the world he had created.
Stripped of everything the manger welcomed new life, a New Light, the living Word. And grace upon grace blesses the world even until today.
Until that day when we return home with the sound of sleigh bells signaling our departure, may we continue to give God our praise, may the Spirit guide our steps and may the grace of baby Jesus radiate within and out of our hearts.

"Unbinding the Gsopel" by Martha Grace Reese

Two weeks ago I finished "Unbinding the Gospel- Real Life Evangelism" by Martha Grace Reese. I was happy to find it only took three hours to read )perfect to break up into three days or a week of relaxing work reading. Reese's energy is infectious, she uses research, great quotes and statistics to discuss the "E" word.

Bravo to page 106 in which she explores the Holy and the Practical: "We have to hold the opposites together. it's All Mystery. It's All Practicality. All the time."

Good book. I plan to be part of a study group that will be using this book for the next 6 weeks. Maybe I'll tell you later how it went.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Wanderings for the Christmas Week

Good afternoon everyone. I pray you are all safe and warm and have weathered the storm.

This Sunday (tomorrow) is our Blue Christmas service. It is a time in which we acknowledge, through liturgy and the retelling of the Christmas story, the grief that we have in our life, and by giving that grief a voice, begin or continue the process of silencing the power of grief over us.

BCUCC has been offering the Blue Christmas service for well over six years. This is my fourth time in leading one, and it has always been a positive experience.

Don't forget that tomorrow night is our Christmas Pageant which Jenny Powers and the children (and adults) of our Sunday School have worked hard on putting together. They will be followed by a mini-Christmas concert put on by the West Michigan Gay Men's Chorus, followed by fellowship and a special visit by a red-suited jolly ole' soul.

This week's scripture reflection is actually for the Christmas Eve reading: John 1:1-18, one of the most exquisite pieces of poetry you will find anywhere, any where.

Here, John makes the statement: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God."

The word Word is a word that John uses for Jesus. When he wrote his Gospel, John was looking for a way to present Christianity to Jews and to Greeks, and he realized that both cultures placed an important emphasis on the Word.

For Jews, words were not just mere sounds: words actually did something, the spoken word was, as William Barclay writes, "fearfully alive...it was a unit of energy charged with power. It flies like a bullet..." Hence, God creates in Genesis 1 by using words, Jacob steals blessings and birthrights by using words.

For the Greeks, the concept of word was just as powerful. The word for word in Greek is Logos. It means word, but is also means reason. Thus, the word of God also meant the wisdom of God, and Greeks were very big on wisdom. That is how many of them experienced Jesus: not as a miracle maker, but as the walking embodiment of God's wisdom and reason.

And for the Jews, wisdom and reason were important as well. Look at the Proverbs. In Proverbs 8 you will find an ode by Wisdom, in which Wisdom states that before the world was created, Wisdom was there, that Wisdom was present when God created established the heavens and drew a circle on the face of the deep.

When John refers to Jesus as the Word, he hits payday: a perfect way to explain just who Jesus is to two cultures who come from different religious backgrounds who can both share an appreciation and understanding of the power of words and the sovereignty of wisdom and reason.

How have you experienced Jesus Christ as a word in your life? How has Jesus Christ made himself know to you through wisdom and reason? How has the words of the Word penetrated your soul like a bullet of life giving energy.

I invite us to ponder this during the Christmas season.

Joyfully yours,
Pastor G
p.s. to make things even more illuminated, did you know that in the Old Testament, Logos/Wisdom was referred to as a female?

Sermon for Dec 14, 2008, Psalm 126

Dec 14, 2008
Scripture: Psalm 126
Sermon Title: "Restore!"
Rev. G
Hear now this story from Elie Wiesel, a well-known survivor of the Holocaust:
In Eastern Europe during the time of WWII there was a caretaker of a synagogue. It was his custom to prepare the place for worship each morning, then he would step up front and address the Lord in a strong, proud voice: "I have come to inform you, Master of the Universe, that we are here!"
After he said that, service would begin.
Then came the first massacre of the Jews, followed by others. Somehow the caretaker escaped.
He continued to run to the synagogue each morning, preparing the place for worship, and he would pound his fist on the lectern and announce "You see Lord, we are still here."
The morning after the last massacre, he did what he always did, sweeping, cleaning, and preparing the synagogue for worship.
He was the last living Jew in town. All the others were in concentration camps or had been killed.
Alone, in the deserted synagogue, he stood in the front, stretched out his hands in prayer and whispered, "Master of the Universe, you see? I am still here!"
He stopped, then continued in a sad, quite voice, "But you Lord, where are you?" (Limburg, p.148)
Have you ever felt like that caretaker? Like the world as you know it is disappearing around you?
That the people you know, love and grew up are gone?
That the only one left is you and God, and even God seems to be absent?
Have you ever found yourself asking those questions? Where are you, Lord? Why did you allow this to happen, Lord? Have you forgotten all about me and my family, Lord?
There’s a lot of people saying that in our country right now. A lot of people saying that in our state.
A lot of people sitting right here today who are thinking that.
We are not living during good times. Listen to the words being used: Recession. Depression. Bankruptcy.
On the eve of the New Year and we truly do not know where we will be. Our great nation may lose its footing and like Jack and Jill we could come tumbling down, breaking more then our crown.
What’s happening to our lending institutions?
What has happened to our world of academia?
What has happened to such assured businesses as GM, Ford, and the Gap?
How is it that Studio 28 is no longer open and operating? That Classic Chrysler has said goodbye?
How is it that unemployment is at a 25 year high?
How is it that we can each look around and name at least 10 people who are not here because either they have stopped coming, are too ill to come or have died?
It is as if we as a nation, a state, a church have been lifted up from an oasis of possibility and plenty and dropped down in an arid land in which the riverbeds have dried up and once fertile lands are now barren and brown.
"Master of the Universe, I have come to inform you that we are here!"
"You see Lord, we are still here."
"Master of the Universe, you see? A few of us are still here! But you Lord, where are you?"
In many ways, we are just like the people who first sang the words of Psalm 126. Like them, we are able to recall the good times, weep for what we do not have, and thirst for what we hope lies ahead in the future.
We, like the singers of Psalm 126, are a nation, a state, a church, that is living in the in-between.
And the word we need to hear, the word we need to shout, and the word we need to remind God about today is "Restore!"
Say it with me: "Restore!"
Psalm 126 is a deceptive song. It’s filled with words of jubilation and joy: mouths filled with laughter, tongues shout for joy, people recalling how they rejoiced when God did great things for them.
But don’t let it fool you. The first half of the Psalm is about a distant memory of what has happened and what God has done before.
But between verse three and four there is a pause, There is anticipation.
Then they say "Restore our fortune, O Lord, like the watercourses of Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves."
Did you hear that? Can you hear the sorrow and sense of loss that is currently taking place?
Good times may have once been the norm, but now the people are weeping. Their life is like the arid land of Negeb.
The Negeb is a dessert region that experienced long summer drought. Dried up riverbeds, like old bones, crisscrossed the land, ghosts of their former selves.
In the Negeb lays no hint of water, the land dusty and brown. Only nomads and camels could sustain life there.
That is how the people feel. Dried, barren. It’s as if God has forsaken them and they are left lost and alone.
All they have with them are the memories their parents and grandparents shared about the wonderful things the Lord used to do.
All they have left are a collection of stories and scripture proclaiming the miracles that had happened long ago.
Now? Now all they have is their ability to recall. Now all they have is their ability to call upon the Lord "Restore" they say, "Restore."
Now all they have is their tears, and their ability to weep in their sorrow...
...Tears are a funny thing. As Americans we don’t like to cry. Not in public, not as men. As Americans we get uncomfortable when someone breaks down into tears. We either distance ourselves or talk the tears away or get them to shut up or say "stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about."
But tears are seen as something different in the Bible. Tears are seen as means of transformation and restoration..
Joseph is reunited with the brothers who once harmed him, and after weeping so loudly everyone can hear, he finds a way to forgive them and invites them to escape the famine and come live with him.
The Israelites are enslaved to the Egyptians and in their broken down state they cry to the Lord and God sends them Moses as a deliverer.
The people of Nineveh put on sackcloth and cry out to God, and when God sees how turned from their wicked ways, he changes his mind about wiping them out.
Jesus, upon finding out his good friend Lazarus is dead, weeps over his death and then goes about restoring him to new life.
And it is while Mary Magdalen stands in the garden weeping that the resurrected Christ speaks to her and calls out her name.
Restored. Restored. Restored. Restored.
So that’s what the people of Psalm 126 do: they weep. They cry. They moan. They imagine that their tears are seeds that they can plant.
They weep, in hopes and anticipation that God will restore them, just as God has done before, just as they believe God will do again and again.
For the good news is that as dry and arid as the Negeb may be, it doesn’t stay that way. For after the long summer drought, the winter rains begin.
And they are not just a drip here and a drop there. But the rains come down in an abundance, filling the dry river beds.
Suddenly they are now filled with fresh, running water. Water that courses through the country side, water that causes vegetation to grow, flowers to bloom; water that gives drink to the people, animals and birds of the air.
Water that makes the once barren land green and lush and wonderful.
No matter how long and dry the summer is, the promise of God’s restoration continues to come true. No matter how difficult things become, God has not forgotten, nor has God forsaken.
But we are not to sit by and take on a passive role. We are not to sit by and take on the role of victim.
But we are to find ways to survive. We are to find ways to escape the oncoming problems.
We are to find ways to continue worshiping God, stepping into his sanctuary, doing his work.
We are to continue to tell the Lord "See, we are still here."
We are to continue holding God accountable and asking "But where are you?"
And we are to continue lifting up the words of Psalm 126.
Restore, we call to God.
Restore, we cry out to the heavens, to remind God of what he has done in the past.
Restore our country we cry out with tears in our tears.
Restore our state we cry out with tears in our eyes.
Restore our economy we cry out with tears in our eyes.
Restore our schools we cry out with tears in our eyes.
Restore our local businesses, restore our jobs we cry out with tears in out eyes.
Restore our broken relationships, restore our homes, restore our family we cry out with tears in our eyes.
Restore our church, we cry out with tears in our eyes.
Restore Your church, we cry out with tears in our eyes.
As you restored our brother Joseph, as you restored our cousins the israelites, as you restored our friend Lazarus, as you restored the crucified Christ, restore us now, oh God, restore.
And maybe, just maybe, the more we humble ourselves, and the more we call upon God to restore us, the more we will find ourselves restored.
Perhaps the more we call upon God to restore us, the sooner we may find ourselves coming home carrying sheaves of glory, the more we will shout with joy.
Thanks be to God who does remember us and has not forsaken us, to the Spirit that fills our mouth with laughter and our tongue with song and for Jesus Christ who was born, crucified and resurrected so we may all celebrate the promise of eternal restoration.
Restore oh Lord, restore!

"Tall, Dark and Dead" by Tate Hallaway

Just finished reading "Tall, Dark & Dead" by Tate Hallaway. It is book one in the Garnet Lacey series. Months ago I had read book three, not knowing it was part of a series. Although I like Garnet and find her character refreshing, I found this book to be a bit of a drag, and I'm slightly resistant to read book 2 (but I know I will). I found this book to be a bit darker, more violent, more of an author trying to find her footing (like the book "One for the Money"), yet I can't help but to like the characters, the set-up, the dialogue.

Garnet is a practicing Witch who has the goddess Lilith living inside of her. She works at an occult bookstore in Madison, WI. She has a cat who is allergic to magic, her ex-boyfriend is a vampire who is now working as a hustler, her new boyfriend Sebastian is an older vampire who is also a witch, has a wife who is dead but not dead, a son who is half vampire/half human and owns a house with a very territorial poltergeist.

Oh, and the Vatican has priests and a bad-ass nun hot on their tail seeking after a formula Sebastian has created that allows vampires to be in the sun.

Oh, it all sounds so confusing, but it's not. Author Hallway just let's it all unfold as if it is every day stuff, which for her heroine Garnet it is.

For a book this cheesy and trying to be fun, it has a few moments that make you think and offers up some spiritual scholarship. Garnet has no problem with the fact that Sebastian is a vampire, but is uncomfortable knowing that he is richer then rich. (p 110) The book can be seen as anti-Catholic. There is reference to Exodus that reads "Thou shall not suffer a witch to live" which Garnet claims is actually supposed to read "Thou shall not support a witch in her livelihood" or "Don't give a fortune teller your dime." (p 58)

By page 181 Garnet and Sebastian are being hunted by the Vatican. Garnet has been hunted before, in fact the Vatican had killed her friends. Garnet acknowledges that in the past she packed up everything and fled, that she could "cut my losses and run at this point," but she decides not to this time. After what has happened with her and Sebastian and her friends who help them, she realizes there has been some deep bonding, and if she fled for her life she would also be leaving her life behind. She feels that now she has something greater to lose their her own life, thus moving from victim to victor/heroine.

Page 221 raises the question of magic and if Christians have their own brand of magic, they just don't call it that. Garnet refers to the images of vampire hunting that involves holy water, crosses and stakes made with the same wood as the Cross. Towards the book's end there is also a lot of Goddess talk and comparing the Catholic image of Mary with Goddesses.

Finally, the book ends with the message that love is healing, and that love can heal that which we don't even know is broken.

"Tall, Dark and Read" is not the best of the Garnet books, it drags and is longer then needed, but it is original, funny, sexy and does get one thinking about their own views of God, religion, spirituality, love and mysterious/magical aspects of life. Still way better then "Twilight"

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wanderings for week of Dec 9-14, 2008

Good afternoon everyone. Is it me, or does it seem forever since we last sat down to share a Wanderings? And this is the right season, since it is the Christmas song "I Wonder as I Wander" that gave this weekly e-mail its name.
This Sunday's sermon is Psalm 126. If you have you Bible close by, take a look at it.
Look at the words of joy this Psalm uses:like those who dream mouths was filled with laughter, tongue with shouts of joy, The Lord has done great things, we rejoiced, reap with shouts of joy, come home with shouts of joy
sounds happy, doesn't it? But also look at the words of sorrow:those who sow in tears, those who go out weeping
Then take a look at verse 1 and 4: they ask God to restore. You can only be restored after something has been lost.
In verse 1 the Lord had restored their fortunes, which means that they had once fallen upon hard times.
In verse 4 they ask God to restore their fortunes like the rivers of Negeb. Negeb was a dessert in which the rivers became dry, but in the winter there was rainfall that filled the empty river beds and turned the dry dessert into a blooming oasis.
Restore us, the people ask God, as you restore the dry riverbed. Restore us, the people say to God, like how the dessert looks after the winter rain.
This Psalm sounds like a joyful celebration of God, but it is steeped in a historical moment in which the people are not experiencing many blessings, and they are inviting God to restore their fortunes the way God has done before, they are inviting God to use their tears and sorrow as tears to plant a spiritual crop that will bring them shouts of joy and fulfillment of dreams.
Can you relate to this Psalm today? If so, how? Can the state and the country relate to this Psalm? If so, how? What are the ways you seek restoration through the Lord? What have your tears been planting? What joyful things can you imagine reaping from your tears if you hand them over to God?
May we all be blessed this week. May we all continue to grow in God's love.
Peace, Pastor G

Monday, December 8, 2008

"Dead Over Heels" and "No More Playas"

"Dead Over Heels" by Mary Janice Davidson. Fun, fun, fun. I say that three times becuase it contains three novellas, dealing with vampires celebrating theirt honeymoon and solving a crime in New York, a mermaid who rescues a survival expert who knows nothing about survival, and a werewolf who goes on a speed dating spress, trying to marry before she turns thirty. There's plenty of shoes, jokes and romance to keep one amused. A quick, happy read, perfect for someone who's very busy and needs some time just to relax and not think too hard.

"No More Playas" by Branda Jackson: A trudge to get through. Don't let the cover photo, nor the back summary fool you. The author tries to have it all ways: present celibate, moral woman to look up to, but scenes of hot sex, while playing on what celibatre may or may not mean. And the two main characters, Lance and Asia are so boring. The book only picks up and is good when it focuses on Lance's sister and her romance with the PI she hires. What the book does right, for a short time, is focus on the sister, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and how her abuser took away from her the chance to see love making as healing, not hurful. And Jacskson explores some side affects of abuse.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Sermon fro Dec 7, 2008

Dec 7, 2008
Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11
Sermon Title: "Comfort and Joy"
Rev. George
It’s the Christmas season. Advent has begun. Time to give gifts, eat delicious food, and sing songs like "Jingle Bells" and "Silent Night".
How about "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," a good wholesome, innocent song: "You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town. He sees you when you’re...sleeping. He, uh, knows when you’re...awake...he knows if you’ve been bad. Or good...So be good for ...goodness sake."
Ooh, that song is just a little bit creepy. Could be the tag line for the latest horror film,
That’s OK, we can watch a movie. I know a good one for the whole family: "Wizard of Oz." See, Dorothy gets caught in a tornado and her house lands on top of a witch and kills her...and then she travels with three strange men to the Wizard who tells her to kill the Wicked Witch of the West... which Dorothy does by pouring water on the witch who cries out in pain "it burns, it burns" as she is melting away...
Ok, maybe not the best thing to do. We could watch "Bambi." No, there’s the whole Mom thing. What about "Lion King"? Oh, no, the Dad thing.
Well, how ‘bout I sing a lullaby? Nothing’s more relaxing then a good old fashioned lullaby.
"Rock abye baby on a tree top, when the wind blows the cradle will rock. When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall...and down will come baby...cradle and..all."
Maybe we shouldn’t do anything?
Isn’t it interesting how there are songs, stories and movies that have become such a part of our mass culture we don’t actually hear what’s going on? We’re so used to the story that we have become numb to the finer plot points.
It’s usually not until we have children that we realize, just how offensive or scary some of the things we sing, watch and read really are.
Case in point would be some of the stories in the bible. Like Noah’s ark: how God wipes everyone and every living thing off of the earth except for one family and two of each animal.
Or Passover. The first born child of the Egyptians dies and during the crossing of the Red Sea all the Egyptian soldiers, horses and carriages perish in the water.
Or the parables of Jesus. The first will be last, or those who work in the field for an hour will get the same pay as those who worked all day.
Or the fact that Jesus is crucified on a cross.
Offensive, all of them, if you really stop and think about it. Which doesn’t always happen.
Historically, Christianity was viewed as an offensive religion. After all, the teachings of Jesus were radical enough to have him killed.
The earliest Christians were jailed and persecuted, one reason was that people thought that communion was an actual act of cannibalism.
The Pilgrims left their home to practice their version of Christianity. And in communists nations Christians have to meet in private out of fear of being arrested or publicly humiliated.
But for us who have always lived in America, who have always been Christians, who have been raised on the stories of Noah’s ark, the Red Sea and Easter, we can fall victim to numbness and become forgetful of just what the messages are that we are hearing.
Until we are placed in a situation in which we have no other choice but to come face to face with the radical offensiveness of our religion, as it so happened here two weeks ago.
On November 23, we decorated the sanctuary, putting up the tree, stringing up the lights. It came time to hang up the paraments: the banners that hang on the back wall.
But there was a disagreement. The wall hangings were the right color of the season: purple. But the graphics appeared wrong.
Instead of symbols of Advent, there were images of Lent: a crown of thorns and a set of nails. As one person stated they found the images to be offensive for the Advent season.
I was struck by this person’s passion on the subject and the word they used: offensive. After all, offensive is a strong word, therefor offensive was the word I could not get out of my head.
Here we are celebrating the season of Advent, which is the joyful waiting for the arrival of baby Jesus, and today we have a scripture exclaiming "Comfort, O comfort my people."
And yet we have wall paraments featuring nails and thorns: far from images of comfort, definitely graphics that can be seen as offensive.
But yet, as Christians, the truth is that the baby who is born Christmas day is the same one who will grow up to be nailed to a cross, and as offensive as that fact is, we can not run away from it, or act as if it not part of the story.
But seeing the nails and crown of thorns does not provide the comfort we seek and celebrate this season, or does it?
After all, how can you speak words of comfort to someone until they have first gone through a time of trial and a time of pain?
If you are like me, you may be fascinated by the diversity that exists Christianity, and perhaps you may feel, as I do, that when it comes to the suffering of Christ, there appears to be three branches Christianity.
There’s the first branch that seems to be very up-front and in your face about it. You walk into their church and the first thing you’ll see is a crucifix with a very gaunt, pained looking Jesus on it.
Everywhere you look is suffering. Stained glass windows show Jesus on the cross, or his dead body being cradled in his mother’s arms.
Some churches feature a permanent display of what they call the stations of the cross which plainly show all the indignities Jesus went through.
Other churches will sing songs all about the blood of Christ: being washed in his blood, being made clean in his blood. No sermon would ever be given, no bible study every shared in which the blood or crucifixion wasn’t highlighted.
Then there’s the second branch of Christianity. hey focus more on the life of Jesus: his teachings, his friendships, his acts of social justice.
Look around that church and you won’t see any image of suffering. Instead you may spot Jesus walking on water, or welcoming children or images of modern day scholars and theologians.
Instead of displaying Christ on the cross, they display an empty cross, symbolizing Christ’s’ resurrection. Sit through a whole service and you may not hear the words sin, suffering or the cross.
This branch may do everything to avoid the suffering of Christ, using instead feel good platitudes and thoughts of positive imagery.
But if all you do is focus on suffering then you forget the joy that comes with being alive, but if all you do is focus on the joy, you become blind to the suffering of the world and the suffering of yourself.
Then there is the third branch, which finds that happy medium in between.
Jesus in embraced as a joyful teacher who shared meals, told stories, built relationships, smiled and had a good laugh. But he is also acknowledged as being punished for his beliefs and willing to die for us.
This is where through the ministry of Jesus the congregation becomes thankful for what they have but also see with new eyes the suffering and injustices that they and others endure.
This is a church that is able to confront the harsh reality of human sin, to stare in the face of the suffering Christ, but can recall that on Easter morning, God’s love conquers all, and we are forgiven, beloved children of God, through Christ.
The third branch of Christianity is able to fully and joyfully embrace the words of "Comfort, O comfort my people" because they have dealt openly and honestly with the painful realities of life that not all is fair and comfortable.
That the one who will be born in a manger is the same one who will die for us on the cross.
"Comfort, O comfort", are the words we hear the prophet share with the people.
These are ageless words, tempered with tears and sighs too deep for words.
The people have faced long, long years of hardships. They have lost everything they know, endured suffering, humiliation and great pain.
"Comfort, O comfort my people" are words that come after decades of wondering who they are, where God has been and if God still loves them.
And it is the words that we as Christians listen to as we await the coming of the Messiah.
But, as stated before, words of comfort can only be offered when an ordeal has been faced or after the worst is long over.
And comfort is what I wish to share with you today, and comfort is what God offers to us to take away the offensive sting of reality.
For although our paraments connect the offensive nature of Lent with the joyful message of Advent, there is a part of the story we have just barely touched upon today.
For in the midst of all that is offensive, there is ultimately hope.
As offensive the story of Noah’s’s ark can be, the outcome is the comforting gift of the rainbow and the giving of the covenant between God and his people.
As offensive as the Passover story is, the outcome is the comforting freedom of God’s people in which they are lead to a new land where they are free to become who God has called them to be.
And as offensive as the nails and crown of thorns seem, the comforting outcome is that on Easter morning, the tomb is found empty and the truth is discovered the Jesus Christ as been resurrected.
Through his unselfish action son the cross, our sins are wiped away, death has lost its controlling sting over us, and God proves that it is he, not politics, not principalities, nor the sinful desires of men and women, that have the final say.
On that resurrection day, when the tomb is found empty, it is Christ who provides Mary Magdalen ultimate comfort when he speaks her name.
Later he gives the comforting gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciple as they fearfully hid in the upper room..
The crucifixion proves to be the ultimate offense, but the resurrection proves to be the ultimate source of comfort.
So today and for the rest of this season, I invite you to start thinking about your faith and what Christianity means to you.
The offensive and revolutionary message that when Emmanuel, God with Us, came to earth, it wasn’t in a place of royalty or household of riches, but it was to a scared, unwed pregnant girl.
The offensive part that Jesus did not rise to a position of prestige or political greatness, but instead walked with us, shared in our sufferings and faced all the hardships we had to endure.
I invite you to realize that the baby who is born on Christmas day is the same man who will free us from the bondage of sin by dying for us on the cross, and is the same one who will speak words of comfort and peace on Easter morn.
These realities of Jesus are not separate, they are not divisible, they are forever connected, forever real.
Offensive and comfortable, suffering and joy.
And he did all of this to show us just how radical God’s love is for us, to show us just how far God will go for each and every one of his children.
All thanks be to the Spirit that has been bestowed upon us, to God who gathers us like lambs into his loving arms, and for Jesus Christ, who is the reason for the season.
Amen and amen.