Something is Coming: Sermon for December 3, 2017

The past few days have been full of seasonal celebrations in Exeter. We had our Christmas open house on Thursday night, which is always one of my favorite nights of the year. The live Nativity is going on out front, the carols are ringing inside, the crowds are streaming through the doors to look at the gingerbread houses, and everything in the church is in a sort of joyful chaos.

Last night we also had the town holiday parade. We walked down to the corner by the bank at around 5, and we staked out a spot. The parade doesn’t even step off from way up on Portsmouth Avenue until 5:30, so we were very early, but the crowd was already swarming. So we stood there, bundled up in our jackets, looking down Water Street, and watching and waiting.

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The parade route, lit up for the season. 

Every year we do this, and every year around 5:45 or so, we start to hear that the parade is almost here. They’ve almost made it to the other end of Water Street. And then, maybe ten minutes later, way down at the turn, we start to see the signs. The blue lights from the police car start to reflect on the buildings. Maybe we can start to hear the band play just a little. And finally, they turn onto Water Street, and it’s there. The waiting is over…the joyful parade is marching into town.

I love Christmases here in Exeter. I love how we celebrate. I went home feeling the joy of Christmas last night. But this morning, here we are in church. And this morning, we are contrasting all that Christmas joy and anticipation with today’s Scripture reading. And let’s be real…today’s Scripture reading is a doozy. Let me read you one of the lines again:
“the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken”
So, if you are looking for a good line for your Christmas cards this year, there you go.

The things is, every year on this Sunday, we read a Scripture lesson with a message like this. Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the first day of a brand new church liturgical year. Every year on this day we start the cycle of stories once again, with these four Advent Sundays where we watch and wait for the birth of Jesus Christ.

This name of this season, Advent, literally means “coming” in Latin. Something is coming, just as surely as that parade was coming last night, something that we cannot yet see, but that will not be stopped. Something that is about to command our full attention.

If Scripture is to be believed, it sounds a bit scary. Everything is about to be shaken up. The sun will stop shining, the moon will go dark, and stars will fall. Even the heaven will tremble. This isn’t the kind of seasonal merry-making we are used to this time of year.

And yet, something is indeed coming. Something that is going to change everything.

You and I know how this story plays out. The “something” that is coming is nothing less that Jesus Christ. Advent is the story of waiting and watching for Christ’s birth. During these four weeks we retell the story of what happened just before then. We talk about John the Baptist, and of his mother Mary, and of a trip to Bethlehem, And on Christmas Eve we gather here, and we talk about his birth, and about how it changed the world.

It’s worth repeating the story each year just for the fact of remembering. But it’s important to remember that this isn’t just about recreating a historical event. It’s not that Jesus was coming and now he’s here. It’s that Christ did come into this world, and that Christ continues to come into this world, time and again, through our own hearts and our own hands. Advent has sometimes been a season of the “already, and not yet”. Christ is already here…and yet in so many ways, Christ is not yet here…not fully anyway.

If you don’t believe that, look at our world. We are living in a time when so much is at stake. This week North Korea launched a missile further than ever before, and the saber rattling between our two countries grew louder. Meanwhile, major decisions are being made in Congress that will impact generations. And across the country, years of silence are giving way to a chorus of “me toos” as people tell their own stories of sexual harassment and assault.

We are standing on the edge of a new day, one that could either be very good, or very bad. We can enter a more enlightened time, when justice and peace and respect for others prevails. Or, we can enter an age where war, and poverty, and inequality regain their footing.

In other words, we are living in a time that was a lot like the one in which Jesus was born. And just like the people back then, we are looking for hope. We are watching, and waiting, and straining to see signs of what is to come.

Jesus tells his disciples “keep awake”. He tells them they do not know the hour in which something new is coming, something that will topple the order we know and usher in a new era, and so they must stand watch. They must be ready.

All these centuries later, we retell the story of Jesus’ birth using his own words: keep awake. Watch and wait. Something is coming. The theme of the first Sunday of Advent is traditionally “hope”. It’s about the hope that we have that something is indeed coming, and that this something is good.

The Christian church has traditionally believed that Jesus was more than just a really good guy. We believe that Jesus was God in human form. We sometimes call Jesus “Emmanuel” which literally means “God with us”. And so when we sing on this first Sunday of Advent “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” we literally are saying “o come, o come, God…and be with us”.

O come, o come, Emmanuel…come into this world that teeters on the brink, and push us into something better. O come, o come, Emmanuel, and bring us hope.

I believe that hope is coming, just as surely as I believed the parade was coming last night. I believe in that hope not because I have seen the fire trucks and floats of hope come down Water Street yet, and not because I’ve heard the band at full volume. I believe because, when I use all my senses, I can observe the signs that it is drawing near.

They were there on Thursday night, when the cookies that were made and donated by so many of you brought in hundreds of dollars for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. And they were there yesterday afternoon, when Pastoral Counseling Services began setting up their new offices upstairs in the parsonage, using our space to provide some healing to those in our town who need it. And they were even there yesterday, at Wes Burwell’s funeral, when we gave thanks for the life of a man who was good, and kind, and brave enough to do the right things.

Sam Cooke wrote a song during the Civil Rights era when the signs of hope were beginning to be visible. Unfortunately, that also meant that the backlash against that hope was starting to come too. One night in late 1963, Cooke showed up at a hotel in Louisiana where he had made reservations. When he got to the front desk, the man there saw him and said that suddenly there were no vacancies. He was turned away.

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Sam Cooke, photo from Billboard Magazine

He knew why, and he was angry. And so he went away, and he began to write a song about how he felt, but also about how he hoped. It was called A Change is Gonna Come. He ends the song with these lyrics:

There been times when I thought I couldn’t last for long/
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long time coming
/But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.

A change is gonna come. Just as surely as that parade was coming last night. But unlike most parades, you don’t just wait passively for this one, watching it pass you by. This is the kind that you dare to join. It’s the kind that you get in front of, before it even makes it to you. It’s the kind that is driven by hope, and that grows stronger with every soul that enters it.

A change is gonna come, and that change is named “Emmanuel”. As the parade rounds the corner, now is your chance. Will you stand to the side? Or will your hope make you jump in?

Joy as Resistance: December 11, 2016

Every year about this time, I start to panic. I’d imagine that a lot of clergy would tell you the same thing. We are trying to finalize Christmas eve services, and get all the moving pieces to line up so that everything goes off without a hitch.

But that’s not what stresses me out about this time of year. What really gets me is Christmas shopping. I get so anxious about buying the right Christmas presents for my family. And shopping for a spouse is the hardest part. Every year Heidi tells me, “I have everything I want…I have you.”

And that is so beautiful and wonderful…and totally exasperating. I’m not going to show up on Christmas morning with nothing, and so I turn into this Christmas detective asking her friends what she really wants.

This year, though, she told me exactly what she wanted (and she told me I could share this story with you this morning). And Heidi is normally so serious and studious, so it surprised me when she told me she wanted this new Nintendo Classic video game console that plays all these old games people from our generation know.

“Great!” I thought. “I’m sure that every big box store around has it on sale, and I can go get one now and wrap it up for Christmas.”

Only, there’s a problem. You can’t find this thing. Apparently Heidi’s dream Christmas gift is the dream gift of the whole country. Stores get it in stock and it sells out in minutes. People are camping out. I’m searching every website I can think of, and the closest I have come to finding it is on a site that will sell you one for six times the retail price.

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Seriously, if you find this thing, let me know.

I’m missing the “I have all I want…I have you” years.

It’s fun to laugh about this, but we also need to acknowledge that this time of year the pressure to make Christmas perfect is sometimes overwhelming. Because as much as I stress over them, the presents aren’t what it’s all about. And on this third Sunday of Advent, when we are so close to the big night, we read a story about what matters. We read about Jesus’s mother, and the surprise of her life.

An angel comes to Mary and tells her that she is pregnant in the most unconventional of ways. Immediately Mary gets up and goes to her cousin Elizabeth’s house. And Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist, and when Mary enters the house the baby leaps up in her womb and Elizabeth knows immediately that something amazing has happened to Mary.

And Mary turns to her and says the words that we now know as the Magnificat: “My souls magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

There would be a lot of understandable reactions to this news that you are pregnant, delivered by an angel no less. Anger, disbelief, denial, fear. No one could possible blame Mary for those feelings. And, Mary may very well have been feeling all of those things, but in the Magnificat we learn that somewhere in all of those feelings she was also feeling something else: joy. “My spirit rejoices in God”

This third Sunday of Advent is traditionally the one when we focus on joy. And, oddly, we talk about joy by telling the story of a teenage mother in crisis. She was young, she was poor, she was pregnant with a baby that was not her fiance’s. And she must have been absolutely terrified. Her world would never be the same.

And yet, somewhere in there, there was joy. There was hope. There was the promise that as hard as it was, this was a good thing.

This has been, for many of us and for many of our neighbors, a difficult year. It may well be that you are ending the year feeling down, or scared, or frustrated. You may be worried about our world, and our future. That is completely understandable.

And that’s why this year, more than most, joy is so important. To find or cultivate joy in the midst of all that is going on is an act of resistance. It’s like Mary standing there terrified and uncertain, telling her cousin this crazy and confusing news, and still being able to say “rejoice”.

Mary’s joy gives me hope. But it also reminds me that joy is different than happiness. Because what Mary was feeling might have been joyful, but I don’t know that I would say she was happy.

And here’s why that matters for us. This time of year happiness is for sale everywhere. Turn on the TV, listen to the radio, walk into a store. Every advertisement, every display, is meant to tap into your hopes and promise you happiness.

And here’s the thing: as much as people say you can’t buy happiness, the truth is that you can. You can buy happiness pretty easily, really. You can find happiness in everything from a stiff drink to a big paycheck, or a nice meal to a new car. You can get happy pretty easily, at least for a little while. And then you can lose it just a quickly.

But joy…that’s what you cannot buy. It’s not for sale in any store, and you won’t find it by getting every little detail of your Christmas celebration right. That’s not how joy works.

Now, joy does not always come easily to some of us. We prefer quiet dignity and reserved praise. On another level, for those of us who are so keenly aware of the inequalities and pain of the world, being asked to be joyful may even be met with suspicion. How can we be joyful when so many suffer?

Here’s what I think. I think it’s easy to be joyless in this world. It’s simple. It doesn’t take much effort. You can put others down. You can dwell in hopelessness. You can even lob out negative comments on the internet from the comfort of your own home. The best part is that if you lack joy, you don’t even have to do anything constructive. You can just dwell in it.

But it is a whole lot harder to rejoice. Why? Because joy is hard.

Now that may sound like an oxymoron. Joy is joy. Shouldn’t joy be easy?

I don’t think so. Because I think joy is something deeper than that. But that also means that it’s rooted. And it’s the thing that remains in you even when everything else around you is crumbling down. It has been said by many, in many different ways, that joy is resistance. That is especially true in the worst of days.

I started out telling you about my Christmas present crisis. But here’s the thing: even if I can’t find this thing, I know that Heidi will be just fine. Why? Because I know she is rooted in something that is much deeper than a need for the right gift on Christmas morning. (I’m still taking all tips on where to find it by the way.)

In all seriousness, we know this. We knew it even as children watching “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. You remember: “Every who down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch who lived just north of Who-ville did not.” The Grinch hates the celebrations, hates the singing, hates the presents, and hates the whole thing. So he devises a plan to slip down into the town in the night, bag up all the trappings of Christmas, take all the presents, and ruin Christmas.

And he does. And the next morning he stands on his mountain waiting for the people to wake up, and be devastated.

how-the-grinch-stole-christmas-christmas-movies-17364435-1067-800But instead, he hears singing. It turns out the Whos woke up and it didn’t matter to them that they didn’t have trees or presents or decorations. And it turns out that no matter what he tried to take away from them, Christmas came anyway. And it stuns him. And he says to himself, “Maybe Christmas, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

The Grinches of the world don’t know what real joy is. And so when they try to take it away from you, they will go only for the things that bring you happiness. And that is not right. But it’s also not the end of the story.

Because joy is indeed resistance. And because joy is how we keep singing in the midst of the pain and fear of the world. I’m fully convinced that nothing strikes fear in the hearts of those who would oppress others more than joy. We do not excuse it. We do not allow it to go unchecked. But we do proclaim that it will not win. Instead we set our hearts up on the front lines, fortified with joy, and we promise to work with Mary’s child to bring light to all the places that need it the most.

But in order to get to that place, we have to get ready. And so, here is my call to you: this Advent, do not settle for happiness. You are worth more than that. Instead, gather the ones you love, and find joy together. Live in the world and look for the moments where joy is breaking through. Open your heart, and let the joy of Christ’s birth really fill it for the first time.

Resist what can never love you back, and rejoice in the One who can. I guarantee that if you do this, no matter what else happens, you will have a truly Merry Christmas. Amen?

Christmas Movies and Advent Stories: December 4, 2016

I’ve said before that I firmly believe that Christmas is the best time of the year for movies and TV specials. Everything from It’s a Wonderful Life to A Charlie Brown Christmas to Elf to the Grinch to A Christmas Story and beyond. There are certain shows and movies that I just have to see each year for it to really feel like Christmas.

movie-mcc-promo03-crachitsThis week I watched A Christmas Carol. The Muppet’s version. And once again I watched the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, and how he was transformed from a grumpy, hardhearted miser to a generous and loving man. And as I was watching, I started to think about a lot of those other Christmas shows I like. And I realized that the main character often goes through some sort of transformation.

George Bailey finds hope again. The Grinch’s heart grows. Charlie Brown learns what Christmas is all about. The list goes on…

But then, we have this other seasonal character. John the Baptist. He’s not exactly camera-ready, and he wouldn’t animate well into a cuddly character. John lived out in the wilderness dressed in camelhair and eating locusts and honey. This would be a horrible Christmas special. But this time of year, right before Christmas, we read about how he preached to everyone who would listen and he told them “prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight”.

In other words, he told the people “get ready”. Get ready because someone else is coming, and he is about to change everything. Get ready because your world is about to change.

We read this story every year in Advent, and John may as well have been talking to us. Because Advent is all about getting ready. It’s about transformation. It’s about preparing our heart for someone who is coming, and opening it up to new ways of being.

In Advent we prepare ourselves by focusing on four themes as symbolized by the Advent wreath: hope, peace, joy, and love. Last week we lit the candle of hope. And today we light the candle of peace.

Christians follow the one who was called the Prince of Peace, and Advent is all about waiting for his birth, and preparing ourselves for what he is about to ask us to do. Things like working for peace. Ending violence and suffering. And standing up against hatred and injustice.

This should be the most peaceful time of the year. But have you ever noticed that sometimes people people preparing for Christmas seem anything but peaceful? Our stress levels go up. We argue. We get frustrated in the stores when we can’t find what we need. Some people even go on TV and yell about the color of Starbucks holiday cups and how no one cares about Christmas anymore.

When you think about it, if you are yelling angrily about Christmas, you are probably missing the point. But unfortunately that happens far too often.

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Santa Claus (aka, Larry Jefferson). Copyright, CBS News.

I was reading this week about how the Mall of America in Minnesota hired its first African-American Santa Claus. This man is a convincing Santa. And, like every other Santa, he does a great job listening to kids share their wishes for the season. My guess is that none of the kids he holds in his lap care all that much about what color Santa is, so long as they get to tell them what they want.

But the adults…they are another story. Adults angrily called the mall and took to social media to denounce the fact this Santa was black. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune had to take down the comments section online because of the horrifically racist and nasty comments they were getting.

It seems a lot of people are on the naughty list this year.

But more importantly, can you imagine what Jesus would say about this? This is his grand birthday celebration, after all, and I’m sure more than a few of those comments came from church-going people who would call themselves good Christians.

The reality is that Christians are supposed to do a better job. We aren’t supposed to be spreading anger and hate. We’re supposed to transform the world.

But that’s a tall order. It’s hard to create peace in the world. We can do our best, we can work for good, we can pray for peace, but in the end, we find out an important truth: often you can’t create peace in the world, until you create peace in yourself.

Oddly, those Christmas movies helped me to realize that because when you think about it, as much as those are Christmas stories, they could also be Advent stories. Because they’re all about preparing our heart and transforming our lives.

Scrooge realizes the error of his ways, and only then is his heart transformed. Charlie Brown finds meaning with his sad little Christmas tree despite the fact the whole world has gone commercial, and no one understands what Christmas is really about anymore. And if you’ve ever seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, in the end we find Clark Griswold, who just wanted a perfect Christmas, finds peace in love of his family despite the fact that just about everything has gone wrong.

One word we give to finding peace within ourselves is “serenity”. A sense that no matter what is going on around us, we will ultimately be okay. A sense that God is will us. And a sense that no matter what the rest of the world is doing, we are able to still find peace and joy and hope deep inside of us.

It’s been said that serenity is an inside job. No one can give it to you. And, really, no one can take it from you, either. It’s a peace that, I believe, comes from knowing what matters most in the world, and opening ourselves up to the peace and the grace that God wants us to have.

And if we’re really serious about Advent, if we’re really serious about preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ, then serenity is the natural byproduct of this time of year. Because if you are truly using this season to focus on what is coming, there is no way that you won’t be changed by it.

Maybe you won’t have a big, miraculous, carol-filled Christmas morning, but inside your heart, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the change happening and the peace filling you.

This time of year, no matter what is happening around us, we are called to prepare our hearts anyway. We are called to open them up to grace and to love and to get ready to welcome Christ into the world. We are called to be messengers of peace, not only in our words, but in our actions.

georgebailey1This week as we go back out into the world, we can go with our hearts holding that promise. We can go as witnesses to the peace that Christ offers us. And we can go as Christ’s transformed people, and Christ’s Advent people.

These are the stories we love to hear, and they are the stories the world needs to hear. The Grinch, Scrooge, Charlie Brown, George Bailey, and all the rest…they were once Advent people too…looking for peace…waiting for a transforming love. And they found it. And so are you, and your story is just about to get good. Amen?

Preparing the Armor of Light: November 27, 2016

A year ago right about this time I had breakfast with a friend of mine who grew up Jewish. We were talking about the coming holidays and she asked me about Advent. “You know,” she said, “I always thought Advent started on December 1st, but I’m hearing now that it actually starts in November.”

“That’s right,” I said. “It starts four Sundays before Christmas, so that means it usually starts the last week of November.”

“So here’s my question,” she replied. “If Advent starts in November, why does my chocolate Advent calendar always start on December 1st? I only get 24 pieces of chocolate.”

After I informed her that she was being cheated she nodded sagely and said “Aha! I knew it.”

I’m not sure what happened after that, but I think she may have gone back to the store to file a complaint.

It’s true that Advent usually starts in November, and today is in fact the first Sunday of Advent. So, if you have one of those December 1st-starting chocolate Advent calendars, it is liturgically appropriate, perhaps even necessary, for you to go out today and get some additional chocolate.

But today is more than just the start of Advent in the church. That’s because on the first Sunday of Advent each year, something big happens. Today we begin a whole new church year. This is, in fact, the church’s new year’s day.

For those who were thinking it was January 1st, let me explain, because there’s a good reason for this. The church year is the cycle we follow that tells the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and reign. And if we waited to start a new year on January 1st we would miss this important early stuff. We’d miss Mary learning she was having this baby. We’d miss Bethlehem and the manger. We’d miss Jesus’ birth itself.

And we’d miss Advent, which is our preparation for everything that is about to happen. And Advent matters. Not just for chocolate calendars, but for something much sweeter than that.

This morning we read a text from the letter to the Romans written by Paul. He tells the Romans, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul is issuing a wake-up call to the Romans. He’s telling them that something big is coming and that it’s time to get ready. He tells them to put on armor. But he’s not talking about literal armor here. There’s no metal and no shield.

Paul talks about “armor of light.” I like that image. I like the idea of clothing ourselves not in the garments of isolation and impenetrability but in something that illuminates. I like the idea of shining in a world where so much is shrouded in darkness.

1006084_237267106479277_264921106_nAnd this is where Paul’s wake-up call comes in, because before we can get dressed in our armor of light, we first have to wake up. We have to look around and see what is happening. And if ever there were a time for God’s people to wake up, this is one of them.

I have been despairing of the state of the world this fall. I know many of you have been too. The mean-spiritedness, the fear-mongering, the scapegoating, the anger and violence. There are times that I wish Mr. Rogers were still alive and that he’d get on TV and remind us all how to act. But even if he did, I fear that he’d be mocked and belittled too.

There are days that I wake up and I feel like I’m living in a world that I never knew I lived in, and like I’m seeing it for the first time.

But the reality is that I, like you, have always lived here. And while I think I’m far from naive, the privilege I carry in so many ways means I’ve been insulated from so much of the pain and the darkness.

And so, like Paul says, it’s time for me to wake up. And it’s time for me to be one of the people who puts on the armor of light and by my very being proclaims a better way in the darkness.

And Advent is about a better way. This first Sunday of Advent, in particular, is about hope. And we’re not talking about cheap hope here. This isn’t the kind of hope that comes from anything you can buy on Black Friday, or some promise from a politician, no matter how great it might sound.

This is about real hope, the kind that comes dressed not in the newest styles or the trappings of some political campaign, but wrapped in the clothes of a newborn baby and placed in an old manger. If that sounds ridiculous, it is, because this is ridiculous hope, the kind that defies every expectation and brings with it demands that will change everything.

Including you, and including me.

That’s important to note because Advent isn’t just about waiting for Christmas. It’s not like being in a long line at the checkout counter, trying to distract ourselves until we reach the counter. This isn’t a passive season. Rather, Advent demands our participation. It demands we wake up, and we prepare for what is about to happen. It demands nothing less from us than a willingness to wear the armor of light.

And as beautiful as that armor might be, know that sometimes it is very hard to wear. There is so much in this world that would try to snuff out that light, to extinguish it. You will be told that it is pointless to wear, that there is no hope, that the darkness has triumphed too fully for your light to shine.

Don’t believe that. Wear that light anyway.

There’s a story about a lumberjack who was once asked how he would chop down a tree if he only had five minutes to do so. He replied, “I’d spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.”

That’s good advice. Preparation matters. Being ready matters. Being sharpened so that we can be effective matters

On Christmas we proclaim the birth of a child who would change everything. And, we commit to being Christmas people, people who would spread the light and the joy of that child to the world.

Christmas is the time when Christ is born anew in all of our hearts, and when his light shines through us. Advent is the time when we prepare for that light.

To put it another way, Christmas is when we join with the newborn savior to start chopping down the overgrowth of hatred, violence, mean-spiritedness, oppression, and false hope. But Advent is when we sharpen our axes.

And so, how will you sharpen yourself this Advent? How will you prepare to wear this armor of light in a world that needs your light?

That is your challenge this week. As a new season, a new year, begins, what is your Advent resolution? How will you prepare yourself for Christ’s birth and for the coming of the light that you will be asked to wear in this world?

How will you wake up, sharp and bright, and be a person of hope?

Whatever you choose, know that Christmas is coming. And so, keep awake, and get ready. It’s a new year, and it’s the perfect time to start something amazing. Amen?

When Love Changes Everything (Even You): Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2015

I firmly believe that Christmas is the best time of the year for movies and TV specials. Everything from It’s a Wonderful Life to A Charlie Brown Christmas to Elf to the Grinch to A Christmas Story and beyond. Most of the year I won’t watch a whole lot of TV and movies, but each December there’s a list of shows I need to see to feel like it’s really Christmas.

But while they are all great stories, they are not the story. Because in the midst of all of the more modern Christmas stories, we have the original stories, the ones that in a real way gave birth to all the others.

And on this fourth Sunday of Advent, we have the story of a key player in the birth of Jesus, someone who had to be on board with everything that was about to happen, and someone whose love would change everything: Mary.

Every year at this time we read the Magnificat. It’s a passage of Scripture that tells us how Mary responded to the unexpected and confusing news that she was pregnant. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she says, “and my spirit rejoices in God.”

Magnify is an odd term in this context, but I always think of it like this: to magnify God is to live your life in a way that makes God’s love for the world even bigger and even more obvious to the people who surround us.

And, in a real way, to choose to magnify God, especially in times when we are asked to respond to a new challenge or a new reality in our lives, has a lot to do with how we love. And if anyone could understand what it means to respond to God in the midst of the unexpected, it was Mary. She is faced with the end of life as she knew it, and she responds by saying she is going to rejoice, and make God’s love known to the world.

Mary’s situation was a little more dire than most of ours, and she was the first person who was asked to respond to the Christmas story, but she wasn’t the last. Because though we are called to participate in the Christmas story in a very different way than Mary was, we are invited into this story none-the-less.

That’s because at Christmas time, if we we are going to be a part of this Christmas story, we are called to make the hard choice to love. I don’t use that phrase “hard choice” lightly. I use it because loving this world, and loving one another, requires something from us. It requires us to invest in others. It requires us to give of ourselves. And, most of all, love requires us to be willing to be changed.

Let’s go back to those Christmas movies again. I recently re-watched “A Christmas Carol”. (The Muppet’s version.) And once again I heard the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, and how he was transformed from a grumpy, hardhearted miser to a generous and loving man.

12391826_1091623084223622_5445554595415901362_nAnd as I was watching, I started to think about a lot of those other Christmas shows I like. The main character often goes through some sort of transformation. George Bailey finds hope again. The Grinch’s heart grows three sizes. Charlie Brown learns what Christmas is all about. The list goes on…

And, when you think about it, as much as these are Christmas stories, they could also be Advent stories. Because Advent is all about getting ready. Advent is all about our own transformation. It’s about preparing our heart for someone who is coming, and about opening it up to new ways of being.

Christians are supposed to transform the world for good. But that’s a tall order. It’s hard to change the world. We can do our best, we can work for good, we can pray for peace, but in the end, we find out an important truth: you can’t create love in the world, until you find love in yourself. And love changes us.

Even Christmas movies know this.

Scrooge realizes the error of his ways, and his heart is transformed, and only then does he give generously. Charlie Brown finds meaning with his sad little Christmas tree despite the fact the whole world has gone commercial, and no one understands what Christmas is really about anymore. And if you’ve ever seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, in the end we find Clark Griswold, who just wanted a perfect Christmas, finds the love of his family despite the fact that just about everything has gone wrong.

If we’re really serious about Advent, if we’re really serious about preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ, if we are truly using this season to focus on what is coming, there is no way that we won’t be changed by it. Maybe we won’t have a big, miraculous, carol-filled Christmas morning, but inside our heart, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the change happening and the love filling us.

And as powerful as that love is inside of us, it’s even more powerful when we share it. What if in the face of all that we find troubling with the world, we showed the world what God’s love really means? What if we showed how powerful it could be.

You’ve all probably read or watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. It starts out, “Every who down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch who lived just north of Who-ville did not.” The Grinch hates the celebrations, hates the singing, hates the presents, and hates the whole thing. So he devises a plan to slip down into the town in the night, bag up all the trappings of Christmas, take all the presents, and ruin Christmas.

And he does. And the next morning he stands on his mountain waiting for the people to wake up, and be devastated.

But instead, he hears singing. The Whos wake up and it doesn’t matter to them that they didn’t have trees or presents or decorations. And it turns out that no matter what he tried to take away from them, Christmas came anyway. And it stuns him. And he says to himself, “Maybe Christmas, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

The story tells us that the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day. And he returns all the things he took, and is welcomed to the feast and, yes, even carves the roast beast.

When he saw the love that the Whos had, when he realized that this love was inside of them and couldn’t be taken away, that’s when he realized what it was all about, and that’s when he was changed too.

You are I, we are not Whos from Whoville. But we are Christians. And we are the people who spend this time of year preparing our hearts for the one who is yet to come, and being transformed in the process. And we have something we can share with the world.

This time of year, no matter what is happening around us, we are called to prepare our hearts to love anyway. We’re asked to open them up and to get ready to welcome Christ into the world. But more than that, we are called to love that world.

I was thinking about that last Sunday when I spent the afternoon with our confirmands. As you know, they had a bake sale during the open house earlier this month. That night they sold things they had made, and they made several hundred dollars. But the best part of the story is this: they didn’t keep a dime for themselves. Instead, last Sunday we went to the store to buy toys and other gifts for young people who otherwise wouldn’t have them this Christmas.

That’s the Confirmation class’s Christmas story. They are choosing to magnify God’s love for the world through their actions. And their story is one that can inspire all of us.

That’s because Christ still comes into this world. Christmas still happens. It didn’t just happen once, it happens all the time. Because Christmas may be about the story that we read. It may be about Mary and Joseph, and the baby and the manger, and no room at the inn. But that’s not the end of the story. The great Christmas story continues to play out, and the truly incredible thing is that you and I are invited onto the stage, and we even get to choose our own lines.

And so, as we prepare for Christmas Eve just a few days from now, here’s the big question: What is your script going to say?

The confirmands, they wrote a pretty good Christmas story this year. One that will change them, and one that will change the world. It’s an example for all of us.

And my hope is that your script too is going to be full of the words and actions of one who wants to magnify God, and to live out Christmas. My hope is that it will be one of a person who has been transformed by the love of God, and who now wants to love the world because of God.

The Grinch, Scrooge, Charlie Brown, George Bailey, and all the rest…those are great stories. But so is yours. And this Christmas, if you really open your hearts to the love of Christ this year, then your story is about to get really good. I can’t wait to hear it. And neither can a world that could use some good stories right about now. Amen?

Reclaiming Joy: Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, 2015

The third Sunday of Advent, like each of the Sundays in Advent, has a traditional theme. The first week we talked about hope, last week about peace, and this week we focus on joy. And as we get closer and closer to Christmas, joy seems to surround us. It’s there in our Christmas carols, and on our cards and decorations. Joy feels natural this time of year.

And so it is easy to hear texts like the one we read today from the letter to the Philippians and agree. Hear the words again: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

It’s easy to see why this is the text that churches read on this third Sunday of Advent. Who doesn’t like to hear about joy this time of year? As we light our candles, we can boldly proclaim our joy in our words, and in our prayers, and in our songs. Christmas is almost here, and we are joyful.

But, what about those times when joy feels hard to reach? What do we say then?

The third Sunday of Advent will always be linked to that question for me, and here’s why. Three years ago I was getting ready to preach about joy. It was the Friday before the third Sunday in Advent. I had been married less than a month before, and I still hadn’t come down. I was on top of the world. Joyful beyond words.

That day we were at the grocery store buying things to make Christmas cookies. And when we got home I was planning to write a sermon that would have rivaled George Bailey’s joy at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

And we had just cleared the check-out line when I looked down, and there was a text from my mom. It just said: “It’s so horrible about all those children in Connecticut.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but within minutes the full horror of what had just happened in Newtown, Connecticut started to sink in.

The next two days, like most clergy I know, I went back and forth between the TV screen, and a blank computer screen. Because I knew I was supposed to preach about joy, but how do you talk about joy in the face of something so terrible?

I think that in the church we sometimes don’t do a very good job of acknowledging the realities of the world. We talk about hope, and peace, and joy, and love. But do we also talk about the hard things that are happening in the world? Things like violence? Things like tragedy? Things like refugee crises? Things that defy understanding?

Too often we don’t. We gloss over them and focus instead on brighter or happier stories. And then we wonder why people worry about whether they will be welcome in church. Because if we don’t acknowledge the pain and suffering in the world, and instead just say “be joyful”, how can anyone tell us their stories? How can they talk about when they are mourning? How can they talk about when they are depressed? How can they talk about losing their job and scrambling to make ends meet?

To deny what is happening in the world is not a Christian response. It’s the opposite of a Christian response, in fact. Because Christ never told us to not tell the truth about life. He never told us to only be happy or carefree or bright all the time. Instead, Jesus told us to bind up the brokenhearted, tell the truth, and stay near those who suffer.

That’s one reason we have our Blue Christmas service here. We know that hard things happen, and that sometimes it might feel like there is no room for that in the Christmas season. Because some years the holidays are just plain hard. We understand, and we make room for that. Because whatever you are going through in your life, you are welcome in church. And you are welcome to carry those things that are hard into this space as well. Because if you can’t bring them here, where can you bring them?

And, at the same time, the church has an obligation. And that is to not just acknowledge the brokenness of the world, which we must do, but to also go one step forward and proclaim that it doesn’t have to be that way. There is another way. And in Advent we point to that fact, and we point with hope to the future, and to the way Christ is coming into this world.

The passage we read from Philippians reminds us of that:

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Scripture doesn’t promise us easy lives, or lives without pain. But it does promise us that those things do not have the last word. And the best way to illustrate it that I know of is to talk about the color of a candle.

You may notice that today’s candle on the Advent wreath isn’t purple like the other three. It’s pink. The traditional color for Advent is purple, which is meant to represent what is royal, like the coming Prince of Peace, but also to show repentance, and the turning away from what is and towards something better. And churches used to take this very seriously, and the four weeks before Christmas for centuries were very somber and penitent.

But the story goes that in the midst of the dark winters and more reflective Advents of years past, churches thought that about now people needed a little glimpse of what was coming. And so they made the third candle pink, which is supposed to be sort of a mix between the purple of Advent and the white of the Christ candle that we light on Christmas eve.

And they called this Sunday “Gaudette Sunday” which means “rejoice”. And so, we light the pink candle because just as the white mixes with the purple and transforms it, we are waiting for Christ’s light to break into our world and bring the joy that feels so elusive. We stand here in the real world, at the junction of where pain and hope meet, and we look for something better. We long for joy. And we say, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, oh come God, and be with us.

And we do something else too. We proclaim, just by being here, what joy really means.
We testify that the joy that comes with Christ sticks around. It’s there in the best of times, but it’s even there when times are hard. You can be a joyful person and still cry alongside the world. Because being joyful means you know it isn’t supposed to be that way, and you believe it can be better.

On Christmas Eve we read these words from the Gospel of John: “The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” In other words, Christ is the light of the world, and the worst that the world can do is still not enough to extinguish that light. And if that light cannot be extinguished, than neither can that joy.

I was thinking about that last Sunday. Many of you know that Heidi was ordained to the ministry in Boston. What you may not know is that choosing that particular date was a declaration of faith for her, and of choosing to live into joy in what is often a hard season.

Heidi has given me permission to share this story with you today. It starts 23 years ago in upstate New York. Heidi’s dad had entered a severe stage in his very real battle with an illness called addiction. And, not knowing what else to do he ended his own life. Ever since the first week of December has been a difficult one for Heidi; one in which the darkness of the world seems to snuff out all of the light.

But it’s for that very reason that Heidi chose last Sunday, the Sunday that came in the first week of December, to hold her ordination to the Christian ministry. It was by that very decision that she proclaimed that the light still shined, and would shine, and that darkness would not overcome it.

Last Sunday was a day filled with joy. I’ve been to a lot of ordinations, and I’ve seen joy, but this was incredible joy. And in a real way, I truly believe that joy was so tangible there because the one being ordained knew real pain, and knew real darkness. And because she would not let those things have the last word. The candle always does, after all, shine brightest in the darkest of nights.

And so, here we are, on one the shortest days of the year. The longest darkness. And we are here because somewhere inside of us we believe that it is true. We believe that the light will always overcome the darkness. And we believe in the miracle that is about to come into this world.

And so, our job as followers of Christ is to spread that light, and spread that joy. Because joy is different than just a feeling. Joy is a way of living as people following the light of Christ into the world. Claiming joy is an act of faith, and living with that joy is an act of revolution in a world that could use a little joy right now. God’s gift of joy is there for us all to claim, not just in the good times, but especially in the bad.

And so, and as we watch and wait this Advent, be witnesses to the light of Christ, and the joy it brings. And live as the people who believe that this joy, and the child who brings it, can change the world. If you do that, you’re halfway to Christmas already. Amen.12316672_1087265511326046_4083360314152080699_n

Waiting for the End of the World (as we know it): Sermon for November 29, 2015

Luke 21:25-36
21:25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.

21:26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

21:27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.

21:28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

21:29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees;

21:30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.

21:31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

21:32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.

21:33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

21:34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly,

21:35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.

21:36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

I’ve talked before about growing up in the South, and having friends who went to very fundamentalist churches. Those churches taught we were in the “end times”. They said that soon the world would face a violent apocalypse. Sometimes even on the side of the road I’d see these signs that said things like “repent, the kingdom of God is coming” or “Jesus will return soon to judge you.”

So a child, all around me was the idea that something really bad was about to happen, and Jesus was the one to blame.

Maybe you can imagine why I thought I thought church was a scary place, and Jesus wasn’t such a nice guy. But when I later actually started going myself I found out that it was really all about God’s love and grace. And today I really strive as a pastor to make sure that church isn’t scary for any of our children.

And that’s why I’m feeling really bad about the fact that today is an intergenerational worship service. Because this passage from the Bible today is scary, y’all.

Today Jesus is telling followers about the end of the world. He says “there will be signs” and “people will faint” and “heaven and earth will pass away” and this is all going to happen when you least expect it.

I should have known better because this happens every year. Every first Sunday in Advent the Scripture reading for the day features Jesus talking about the end of the world.

That’s a lot different from what we’re hearing everywhere else. It’s a few days after Thanksgiving, and Christmas preparations are well underway. There are constant commercials on TV talking about love and joy. Maybe we already have our tree, or we’ve put up lights. And carols are playing all around us.

In short, while we in the church are talking about depressing things, everyone else is happy.

And I’m not a Grinch. Christmas is my favorite time of year. But I am aware that Advent wasn’t always an elaborate run-up to Christmas day itself. Advent used to be second only to Lent as a time of penitence. Traditionally churches wouldn’t celebrate weddings or have major celebrations. Instead they spent Advent preparing spiritually for the celebration that was coming. In Advent they learned how to wait, and watch.

12311087_1081521218567142_3499862484665391068_nIt’s been said that Advent is really about two different Advents, or waiting and watching for two different events. The first is the one that happened over two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. It’s the story of the birth of Jesus and how the Son of God came in the most unexpected way. And that story, in and of itself is worth commemorating year after year.

But there’s a second coming that we’re waiting for too. And that’s the one when here at the beginning of a new church year we let the light of Christ be born in us once again.

That’s why it matters that Jesus says “there will be signs”. They will be all around us. And when we see them we will know that Christ is at work in us and with us.

But what are the signs around us? And what are they pointing towards?

We have to start by looking around us. And sometimes it doesn’t look so good. Paris, Syria, Gaza, Colorado Springs, and even closer to home. This world is not the one God wants for us. I truly believe that.

But there are some churches that use what is happening in the world as a way to prey upon the fears and anxieties of others. They say we’re in the last days, and that the violence and crises in the world are all the proof we need. But put your faith in Christ, they say, and on the last day, in the final judgment, you will be saved.

It’s very much like the message I heard growing up. I call it “save yourself” theology: Don’t worry about the others, there’s nothing you can do for them. Just save yourself.

But I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant. Make no mistake, Jesus is talking about things changing completely. He says that “heaven and earth will pass away.” But, despite how that sounds, this is not a text that is about our destruction.

There is something here that is much deeper than that.

Today we start the church year by watching and waiting in the darkness. We begin our preparations for a joyous season with words of warning. But we don’t remain there. And we don’t remain alone.

This morning we lit the first candle on the Advent wreath. And like I told the children and youth, the traditional theme for this first Sunday in Advent is hope.

It’s an odd theme for a day when we read about the end of the world, isn’t it? Be on watch at all times, because Jesus is coming an we will all faint and shake. Hope? It sounds more like terror.

But maybe it doesn’t have to.

Unlike all those churches that preach about the the end of days, ones who tried to scare you into faith, Jesus does something different here. And he’s not talking about those “Left Behind” books or “end of days”. Yes, he says, things will change. And, yes, it will be different and it will shake us up. But, ultimately, this isn’t about judgment and destruction.

Listen to how Jesus tells us to look for the signs that he is at work in the world. He tells us to look for signs of life. Look for the budding of fig trees. Look for the churning of the oceans. Look to one candle burning on an Advent wreath while the others wait. Look for Christ and his kingdom. And look to what this world could be.

The reality, one that is also born out by the central story of our faith, that of Resurrection, is that our darkest times come right before our brightest days.

I hear those stories a lot. Stories of people who come to a crisis in their lives. Maybe it was that they finally hit their rock bottoms with addiction. Maybe they realized once and for all that they were in an abusive relationship. Maybe they found out that they had a medical diagnosis that they never expected. In that moment their life had never seemed darker.

It was the end of the world for them, or so they thought.

But then, something happened. They got sober. They walked away from the person who was hurting them. They found out they could not only live with their illness, but they could thrive.

And, in much the same way, that’s how Jesus’ vision is different too. We might think of those who say it’s the end of the world. But maybe it’s not the end of the world, but just the end of the world as we know it.

That’s the great promise of the Gospel, and the great promise of Advent. Everything is going to change. Even life itself. And even you. But the wars, the pain, the death, the suffering…they are not signs of the reign of Christ. They are signs that the reign of Christ is yet to come.

The real signs are all around us. Some are as subtle as a new leaf on a fig tree. Others are as unexpected as a baby being born in a lowly manger. But they are there, if we only stop and look.

That’s what Advent is all about. It’s about looking around and accepting the fact that God loved the world too much to ever let us destroy ourselves. And it’s about God choosing to love us more.

“Be alert at all times” Jesus tells us. Be alert for the end of the world as you know it, because you’ve never seen anything like what is yet to come. Be alert in all the glow of lights and the sound of carols for what they represent. Be alert for hope, and in hope.

When you are, and when those small signs are seen, that’s when you know that Christ is about to change everything. And so, may God bless us in this Advent as we wait with hope for Christ’s arrival, and as we look inside and prepare a space for him. Amen?

Unquenchable Joy: Sermon for December 14, 2014

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

5:16 Rejoice always,

5:17 pray without ceasing,

5:18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

5:19 Do not quench the Spirit.

5:20 Do not despise the words of prophets,

5:21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good;

5:22 abstain from every form of evil.

5:23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

5:24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

10351589_852857818100151_8955112285688659441_n

The third Sunday of Advent, like each of the Sundays in Advent, has a traditional theme. The first week we talked about hope, last week about peace, and this week we focus on joy. And as we get closer and closer to Christmas, joy seems to surround us. It’s right there in our Christmas carols, and on our cards and decorations. Joy feels natural this time of year.

And so it is easy to hear texts like the one we read today from the letter to the Thessalonians and agree. Hear the words again: Rejoice always! Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Jesus Christ for you!

It’s easy to see why this is the text that churches read on this third Sunday of Advent. It’s all about joy, and who doesn’t like to hear about joy this time of year? And so, as we light our candles, we can boldly proclaim our joy in our words, and in our prayers, and in our songs. Christmas is almost here, and we are joyful.

But, what about those times when joy feels impossible? What do we say then?

Two years ago today I was getting ready to preach about joy. It was the Friday before the third Sunday in Advent. I had been married less than a month before, and I still hadn’t come down. I was on top of the world. Joyful beyond words. And that day we were at the grocery store buying things to make Christmas cookies. And when we got home I was planning to write a sermon that would have rivaled George Bailey’s joy at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

And we had just cleared the check-out line when I looked down, and there was a text from my mom. It just said: “It’s so horrible about all those children in Connecticut.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but within minutes the full horror of what had just happened in Newtown, Connecticut started to sink in.

The next two days, like most clergy I know, I went back and forth between the TV screen, and a blank computer screen. Because I knew I was supposed to preach about joy, but how do you talk about joy in the face of something so terrible?

I think that in the church we sometimes don’t do a very good job of acknowledging the realities of the world. We talk about hope, and peace, and joy, and love. But do we also talk about the hard things that are happening in the world? Things like violence? Things like tragedy? Things that defy understanding?

Too often we don’t. We gloss over those things and focus instead on the brighter, or happier stories. And then we wonder why people worry about whether they will be welcome in church. Because if we don’t acknowledge the pain and suffering in the world, and instead just say “be joyful”, how can anyone tell us their stories? How can they talk about when they are mourning? How can they talk about when they are depressed? How can they talk about losing their job and scrambling to make ends meet?

To deny what is happening in the world is not a Christian response. It’s the opposite of a Christian response, in fact. Because Christ never told us to not tell the truth about life. He never told us to only be happy or carefree or bright all the time. Instead, Jesus told us to bind up the brokenhearted, tell the truth, and stay near those who suffer.

That’s one reason we have our Blue Christmas season here. Because we know that hard things happen, and that sometimes it might feel like there is no room for that in the Christmas season. Because some years the holidays are just plain hard. We understand, and we make room for that. Because whatever you are going through in your life, you are welcome in church. And you are welcome to carry those things that are hard into this space as well. Because if you can’t bring them here, where can you bring them?

But, at the same time, the church has an obligation. And that is to not just acknowledge the brokenness of the world, which we must do, but to also go one step forward and proclaim that it doesn’t have to be that way. There is another way. And in Advent we point to that fact, and we point with hope to the future, and to the way Christ is coming into this world.

The passage we read from Thessalonians reminds us of that. It’s important to remember the context of this letter that tells us to “rejoice always”. Like many of the Apostle Paul’s letter it was sent to a church that was going through a time of uncertainty. They were figuring out how to be some of the first followers of Jesus Christ at a time when no one understood them and what they were doing. And professing your faith in Christ, at that time, could often come with harsh penalties. And so Paul was writing this letter to them to encourage them, and to remind them to continue to live in hope and joy, even when it was hard to be hopeful and joyful. And he tells them “don’t quench the Spirit.” In other words, do not let anything extinguish your joy.

So what did I say on that Sunday two days after Newtown, two years ago? I’ll tell you this first, what I said did not make everything better. And it didn’t erase the pain of what had happened. It probably even sounds a little ridiculous now, but bear with me. Because that day the best I could think about to say was to talk about the color of a candle.

You may notice that today’s candle on the Advent wreath isn’t blue like the other three. It’s pink. The traditional color for Advent is purple, which is meant to represent what is royal, like the coming Prince of Peace, but also to show repentance, and the turning away from what is and towards something better. And churches used to take this very seriously, and the four weeks before Christmas for centuries were very somber and penitent.

But the story goes that in the midst of the dark winters and more reflective Advents of years past, churches thought that about now people needed a little glimpse of what was coming. And so they made the third candle pink, which is supposed to be sort of a mix between the purple of Advent and the white of the Christ candle that we light on Christmas eve.

And they called this Sunday “Gaudette Sunday” which means “rejoice”. And so, we light the pink candle because just as the white mixes with the purple and transforms it, we are waiting for Christ’s light to break into our world and bring the joy that feels so elusive. We stand here in the real world, at the junction of where pain and hope meet, and we look for something better. We long for joy. And we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, oh come God, and be with us.

And we do something else too. We proclaim, just by being here, what joy really means.

The other night in our Advent discussion group we talked about “joy”, and we asked if it’s possible to be joyful even when maybe things in the world around you aren’t so great. And one of you said something like this: “I’d like to believe that the joy that comes from Christ is not so that shallow that the world can give it or take it away.”

I think he was right. Because if joy can be lost or gained so quickly, it’s just happiness. Not a bad thing, but not such a long-lasting thing sometimes. But the joy that comes with Christ sticks around. It’s there in the best of times, but it’s even there when times are hard. You can be a joyful person and still cry alongside the world. Because being joyful means you know it isn’t supposed to be that way, and you believe it can be better.

About a year and a half ago, a few months after Newtown, the Boston marathon bombing happened. We were married at Old South Church, the church right at the finish line of the Marathon that sustained some damage in the explosions, and just a few months before we had stood only feet from where the bombs went off to take our wedding photos. And when we watched the coverage on the news, I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.

About a week later, before they even opened the streets back up, we went down to Boston for Old South’s first worship service in the aftermath. And I spent some time walking around the streets there by Copley Square. Police tape blocked off a lot of the area, but every time there was a barricade there was also something else. People had taken chalk and written messages on the sidewalks. Messages of hope. Messages of healing. Messages of peace. I walked the streets reading them.

And there was one message that captured me in both it’s simplicity and its depth. There, on the sidewalk, in blue chalk, someone had written simply “light overcomes darkness”.

I think that’s when I stopped feeling like someone had punched me, and I started to remember that violence and anger and destruction don’t get to have the last word. Only God does, and God sent Christ to this world not just so that we might live, but so that we might have a deep abiding joy.

And so, here we are, on one the shortest days of the year. The longest darkness. And we are here because somewhere inside of us we believe that it is true. We believe that the light will always overcome the darkness. And we believe in the miracle that is about to come into this world.
On Christmas Eve we read a passage from the Gospel of John, one that the person who wrote that chalked message on the sidewalk may or may not have know: “The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. In other words, Christ is the light of the world, and the worst that the world can do is still not enough to extinguish that light. And if that light cannot be extinguished, than neither can that joy.

And so, our job as followers of Christ is to spread that light, and spread that joy. Because joy is different than just a feeling. Joy is a way of living as people following the light of Christ into the world. Claiming joy is an act of faith, and living with that joy is an act of revolution in a world that could use a little joy right now. God’s gift of joy is there for us all to claim, not just in the good times, but especially in the bad.

And so, and as we watch and wait this Advent, be witnesses to the light of Christ, and the joy it brings. And live as the people who believe that this joy, and the child who brings it, can change the world. If you do that, you’re halfway to Christmas already. Amen.

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Advent Stories: Sermon for December 7, 2014

Mark 1:1-8
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;

1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Advent2

I don’t watch a lot of movies. I really have never been good at sitting still long enough. But there is one exception: Christmas movies. Right now there is a stack of them next to our TV: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf, Christmas Vacation…the list goes on. And each December I probably spend more time than the rest of the year combined watching movies.

I’ve found that the same is true for others too. There’s something so special about the Christmas stories we grew up with, and even the ones we’ve come to know as adults, that they become a part of the way we celebrate the holidays.

But as much as I love them, there’s a catch…and that’s that I don’t think all of our favorite Christmas stories are really Christmas stories at all.

I’ll come back to that. But first, we have this story from Scripture about another character: John the Baptist. It’s traditional that on the second Sunday of Advent churches read about John, and about how he lived out in the wilderness where he ate locusts and wild honey, and wore camel’s hair, and shouted at people to “prepare the way of the Lord”.

So, you know, really Christmasy. He doesn’t sound like he was a lot of fun to be around. Actually, he sounds a little more like the Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge. And yet, this is in many ways exactly the text we need to read this time of the year.

Because Advent is about preparation. It is about, as John puts it, preparing the way of the Lord and making the Lord’s paths straight. And John doesn’t mean literal paths by that. He doesn’t want us to build sidewalks or pave roads. He wants us to do something much harder.

John is telling us to clear the way for God to come into our hearts and into our lives. “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make the path straight.” In other words, get ready. Make some room for God.

That can be hard to imagine during the midst of the busy run-up to Christmas. We all have things to do this time of year. Presents to buy, cookies to bake, decorations to put up, cards to send. We may be busier than ever. And now John, this guy with his camel hair, wants us to add one more thing to the list. And that’s pretty easy for him to say. His shopping list consists of only two things: locusts and honey.

But, what if he’s right? What if you and I are being asked to prepare the way of the Lord? And what if it’s not just something to do on top of everything else we do to get ready for Christmas? What if it’s the point of this whole season and nothing else really matters?

Part of how we prepare the way of the Lord in this Advent season is by reflecting on the four traditional themes of the season. Last week was “hope”. And today is “peace”. But this story about John the Baptist, this guy who is sort of out there raving in the wilderness, at first glance might not sound like it has much to do with peace at all, so you might be wondering, “why do churches read about him this week”?

I think the answer to that has to do with how we understand what “peace” means. So, how would you define peace? It is the absence of war? In one sense, yes. And I would love for us to learn how to live without war. This world has too many wars, including ones being fought right now. This year, as I’m thinking about what peace means, I’m also thinking about a friend of mine who is deployed to Afghanistan right now. And as he spends this Christmas away from his family, I’m thinking about a world in which he would never have had to go.

I believe that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, wants that kind of peace for the world. But I don’t believe peace stops there. Because peace means more than not just firing a weapon, or raising a fist. And Jesus himself showed that.

Because the child we wait for this season, the one who would be called the Prince of Peace, is also the guy who grew up to angrily flip over tables in the Temple. He didn’t believe in the kind of false peace that comes only in the absence of armed conflict. And that’s because he wanted more from us than peace without justice.

And so when Jesus walked into the Temple and saw a system of money changing and usury that manipulated the faith of people and exploited the poor, he literally turned the tables on it. And in doing so, he taught us all that real peace cannot come when some are being oppressed. Real peace only comes when every child of God is treated justly.

So, already peace is a tall order: the absence of violence, and the absence of injustice. But, what if there’s even more to it?

There is a song you may have heard: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” There’s also that prayer from St. Francis that we recited at the beginning of our service: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

What if we got absolutely serious about that? What if we decided that we ourselves were going to be the place where peace starts. And, even harder, what if we committed to creating peace within our own selves?

There’s a word that I’ve come to associate with inner peace: serenity. Reinhold Niebuhr, the well-known UCC minister and theologian, even wrote a prayer about it that you probably know: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Serenity does not mean that everything is perfect. It does not mean that things are even good or comfortable. It simply means that in the midst of everything, we have a sense of peace. And for those of us who are Christians, that means a sense of connection with our God, and with Christ, the Prince of Peace.

In that way, reading about John the Baptist on this Sunday of peace is maybe not so strange after all. Because what John is asking us to do is to get ready for God. John is saying prepare your heart, and mind for Christ’s coming. Unclutter the path that God will take, remove the obstacles you have placed there, and open yourself up to the peace that only Christ can bring.

Prepare the way of the Lord, because that’s how you find peace in yourself. And if you don’t have that peace, how can you ever except to bring it to others?

And that’s important because so much of what John the Baptist was doing out there in the wilderness was witnessing to the one who was to come. John knew he was not Christ. He knew something bigger than him was coming. Just like you and I are not Christ, but we witness to what we believe by the way we live our lives. And in Advent we prepare ourselves for the work of witnessing to God’s hope, and peace, and joy, and love, that we are asked to do all year. We prepare the way of the Lord inside of us, that we may prepare the way of the Lord in a world that so desperately needs all of those things that only Christ can bring.

And so, here’s where I want to go back to those Christmas movies and specials I talked about at the beginning. Remember how I said they weren’t really Christmas stories? I say that not because they are not Christmas-themed, but because most of them are really Advent stories. And that’s because most of them are about someone who learns to prepare the way of the Lord in their heart by making a change.

Even when everything is coming down around George Bailey, he learns to see the world through grateful eyes. Ebenezer Scrooge sees the truth about himself, becomes a compassionate and kind soul, and changes his miserly ways. Charlie Brown hears Linus recite the Christmas story, and he learns what Christmas is all about. And even the Grinch hears the Whos down in Whoville singing despite the fact he stole Christmas, and his heart grows three sizes that day.

Those are their Advent stories. Each has an Advent that prepares them for Christmas. And each arrives at Christmas day different than they were when the season of Advent started. They are, in some way, transformed. And transformation is what Advent is all about.

So what is your Advent story? How are you going to be transformed this year? How are you going to prepare and make straight the way of the Lord?

You don’t have to be visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. You don’t have to have to go to Whoville. You don’t even have to have Charlie Brown’s sad little Christmas tree. All you have to do is this: open your heart, and make a little space for the Prince of Peace. Prepare the way of the Lord, and the Lord will show you the rest. Amen.

Advent Hope (Or, Why I Quit My PhD Program)

Over the last few years I have written short daily devotionals for each day of Advent and Lent. I enjoyed doing it, but there were times when it felt a bit draining, particularly in the clergy obstacle course that is the season of Advent and Christmas planning.

So this year I am doing something a little different. I am not writing daily posts, but I am committing to blogging. Maybe it will be once a week; maybe more. But, if I miss a day I won’t feel like I’m failing Advent. (Ever feel like you get grades for your liturgical seasons? Just me?)

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

Today seems as good a day as any to start in Advent because it is a memorable one for me. Thirteen years ago today I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. When I knelt in the chapel of Columbia Theological Seminary and my friends and colleagues laid on hands I thought I knew how this journey would go. I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to a specific call as a hospital chaplain. I thought I would spend a few years serving as a chaplain, go to graduate school and get a PhD, and then teach in a seminary somewhere. I had hopes, and I was going to work to make those hopes realities.

And for a few years I was on that exact course. I spent hours in a pediatric emergency room responding to the families of children with traumatic injuries. I crammed for the GREs. I earned a second masters degree in systematic theology that would boost my chances of getting into a PhD program. And then, early in 2005, I dropped six PhD applications into the mail and waited.

Here’s the part where you expect me to say I didn’t get in anywhere, and I had to change my hopes. Part of me wishes I had received back rejection letters. But I didn’t. Instead six offers of acceptance came back bringing with them my choice of programs. In the end I picked the one I thought made the most sense and headed off for the ivy tower, ready to join the ranks of the academy. My hopes had been realized.

Except for one thing. I hated academia.

Sure, I’ve never met a PhD student who was thrilled with their life. Graduate work is quiet drudgery. You live in a little apartment while your friends are buying houses. You drink too much coffee and eat too much crummy food. You feel grateful for the meager stipend you are lucky enough to get for being a teaching assistant. And you read. A lot. And you write. A lot. And you try to make your professors happy, but you get a sense that this is going to be a years-long academic gauntlet.

I expected all that. I expected things to be hard, and I was fine with that. But what I didn’t expect was how empty the whole thing would make me feel. I didn’t expect that each class and paper would feel meaningless. I didn’t expect the existential angst that would come from devoting years of my life to a dissertation that would most likely sit in an university library unread. I didn’t expect that I would feel like I was on the sidelines, sitting on the bench, while all my other clergy friends got to play in a game that mattered. And I didn’t expect that I would start to think about how to get through the next 35 years doing something I hated.

It wasn’t until later that I came to realize that, no matter how much we complained, a lot of my classmates actually didn’t hate it that much. I began to realize that they had a legitimate calling to academia. And, more importantly, I did not.

And so, I had to go back to what got me there in the first place. And I realized that becoming a PhD student had little to do with my hopes, and everything to do with my fears.

The reality is that when I was ordained in 2001 the Presbyterian Church (USA) (the tradition in which I was ordained) still prohibited practicing LGBT people from being ordained. (Despite recent news reports to the contrary, this is still the case in many presbyteries.) I had been out since I was 18, a fact that did not change while I was in seminary, and I know my ordination committee was well aware of this fact. (One member pulled me aside to assure me of this.)

And yet, I was never asked whether or not I would abide by the rules as they then stood. It became our little game of chicken. Our own ecclesiastical “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

If I had it to do over today, I might do things differently. But I was 24 when I was approved for ordination, and living in the South. Not even the local United Church of Christ jurisdictions were approving LGBT people for ordination yet. And so, cheered on by professors and well-meaning clergy who assured me I could do more good “inside the system” than outside, I played the game, and I was ordained.

But I knew that there were still things I could not do. I could not pastor a church, because I could not love a congregation the way a pastor must love their church and not be honest with them. Likewise, though I was not yet partnered at the time, I knew in the future that I could not love someone as a partner and ask them in any way to hide who they were in my place of ministry. I knew plenty of clergy who did this, and I saw what it did to them and their families.

And so, even though I loved preaching, even though I loved the parish, I convinced myself that I didn’t belong there. And I instead came up with a new set of hopes; ones revolving around chaplaincy and academia, relatively “safe” places full of LGBT clergy.

But deep down inside I knew it wasn’t my calling. No wonder I was miserable. I had traded in hope for convenience and safety. And hope, real hope, rarely guarantees us either.

I left my PhD program after two and a half years. My only regret is that I didn’t leave earlier. I also left the Presbyterian Church, choosing instead to transfer my standing to the United Church of Christ. And, finally, I went out into the parish, the very place I’d been so terrified to go, but yet the one place I was sure God wanted me.

Along the way I learned something about hope. It’s not about goals or plans or hoping that everything will work out easily and with the least degree of resistance. Instead, it’s about trust. It’s about trusting God enough to believe that God is creating something new and good, and God will make a way for you to do exactly what you are called to do.

And it’s also about knowing that if your hopes aren’t big enough, if they are in any way dictated by fear and not faith, you will end up settling for being miserable.

Thirteen years later, my ministry has taken me to a place I never expected. I’m not at a seminary teaching. I’m also not living with a tacit understanding between self and denomination. And I’m not compromising my hopes anymore.

Instead, I wake up in the morning next to a wife I love dearly. One I will never ask to hide for me. I walk from our home down the street to my study in the church office. I spend my days preaching, writing, praying, talking to parishioners, working for peace and justice, and serving the church and community. But, more than that, I truly believe I spend them (to steal a phrase from the Westminster Catechism) glorifying God, and enjoying God forever. And I am truly, deeply happy.

And now I know. On that day thirteen years ago, I may have had hope, but my hopes weren’t nearly big enough. And so this first week in Advent, when hope is what we think about, that is what I know about the subject: A hope that depends on our fears, and not our faith in what God can do, is no hope at all. And I truly believe that God wants more for us than that.