God is Still Breaking and Entering: Sermon for November 30, 2014 (First Sunday in Advent)

Mark 13:24-37
13:24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,

13:25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

13:26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.

13:27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

13:28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.

13:29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.

13:30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

13:31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

13:32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

13:33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.

13:34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.

13:35 Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,

13:36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.

13:37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

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Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the start of the church season when we begin to prepare for Christmas, and the coming of Christ. And like I was telling the kids when they came up here this morning, our sanctuary shows that we are getting ready for something new. Our paraments have switched over from greens to blues and purples. The Advent wreath has been lit for the first time. And the manger is here, waiting for Jesus’ birth.

And this first Sunday in Advent, like all the other Sundays in Advent, has a traditional meaning and theme. The first Sunday is focused on hope, and the next three on peace, joy, and love. And so over the course of this month, we are going to be thinking about those things and praying about them in the hopes that as we wait for Christ, hope, peace, joy, and love will surround us, and transform our world.

And so, knowing that we are thinking about hope today, you might wonder why most churches are reading the particular passage from Scripture that was just read. Because, it doesn’t sound so hopeful. Listen to part of it again: Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.

It almost sounds like a threat: Jesus is coming, and you better not be slacking off because Jesus is like the boss who comes in and finds you sleeping on the job. Not exactly hopeful, right? There’s an old joke: “Jesus is coming! Look busy!” When I read this text I think, “Maybe that’s not a joke?”

But then I think again. Because I don’t think that Jesus is the horrible boss hiding around the corner waiting to sneak up on us and catch us in the act. I don’t think Advent is about that at all. But, I do think that Advent is about waking up, and being prepared. But not because we are afraid. But because something big is about to happen, and God is behind it.

And that’s because Christmas is a bit of a both/and holiday. It is both about something that happened 2,000 years ago, but it is also about something that is happening now. Because 2000 years ago Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and that alone is worth celebrating and remembering. But Christmas is more than just a historical event. Christmas is something that keeps happening in our lives. And each year this celebration can help us to remember that.

Because Christmas is all about God becoming one of us. Not like one of us, or pretending to be one of us, but God choosing to be one of us. It’s God loving us so much that God came into the world not in power, or wealth, or prominence, but as a little child who had none of those things, and yet who changed everything. And it’s about the fact that God has never stopped being a part of our world.

Christmas is about God breaking into this world, and God breaking into our hearts. And, in a strange way, Advent is the season where you and I help God get ready to do pull off the ultimate break-in.

We do this by preparing ourselves to be the first to be broken into. And so, we unlock the doors of our hearts and minds, the ones we keep sealed up so much of the year out of fear, or anxiety, or pain, or hatred. We shut off the alarm systems that keep us on edge, and keep us from opening ourselves wide. And in this season, somehow, we find a way to be just a little more loving, just a little more joyous, and just a little more hopeful.

And the hope comes where we least expect it. Because contrary to what the ads on television might tell you, hope does not come in a Black Friday or Cyber Monday sale, no matter how much you will save. Hope is not dependent on whether you get everything on your Christmas list this year, or even whether your kids do. It doesn’t even come from having the perfect Christmas cookies, or lights, or tree.

Instead, the hope comes when God breaks into our hearts, the same hearts which are so often broken by this world. Because you can be the most positive and optimistic person in the world, and yet you have to admit that there is a lot in this world that can break your heart.

And yet, the true meaning of Christmas is God saying it doesn’t have to be that way. And the true meaning of Advent is us saying, “We agree, and so we are going to get ready for another way.”

So this year, how are you going to help God’s love to break into this broken world? How are you going to prepare for something better, not just for a few weeks every December, but for always?

Our tradition in the UCC is fond of the phrase “God is still speaking…”, used to describe our belief that God is still revealing God’s self to us. But maybe a better phrase might be the odd sounding “God is still breaking and entering…” God is still breaking into our world, and entering our hearts. And thanks be to God, literally, for that.

And so, where do we hope God’s love breaks into and enters this December? Afghanistan? Syria? Washington, DC? Ferguson, Missouri? I hope for all of those places. But before I can hope for any of those places, I have to first hope that God’s love breaks into my own heart, and changes me.

I have to be ready to let God’s love do that. I have to be willing to be transformed. And I have to accept that fact that once God is in, everything is going to be different. I can’t hope and also cling to the way I want things to be all at the same time. Because if I want to choose God’s hope, I also have to choose to let go of what is comfortable, and certain, and easy.

That’s true of all of us. That’s even true of God, who chose to become one of us, that came in a newborn’s weakness, in order that we might learn what it is to really hope.

And so, on this first Sunday of Advent, we can choose to live into that hope. And we can choose to help to welcome Christ into this world by preparing a place for him that we have lined with our prayers.

During the children’s sermon I was telling them that each week we are going to be doing just that, in a symbolic way. This manger has been brought to the chancel, and you have in your pews strips of yellow paper. You might not know it yet, but that’s straw. That is the straw that we are going to use to line this manger, and to get it ready for Jesus’ birth.

So, here’s the interactive part of the sermon.

Each week you will have the chance to write a prayer on that straw. This week we are asking for your prayers of hope. Next week of peace. The following of joy. And the final week, of love. And after today our kids are going to collect them as they come forward for the children’s sermon, and they are going to place them in the manger. And by the time we get to Christmas Eve, this manger will be full. And when it is we will be saying this to God with our prayers: “We are in…we are ready…break into our world, God, and break it open with your love.”

And so, take a moment now. Take one of those strips of paper, and write your prayer for hope. It can be simple, just a few words. And in just a few minutes, as we sing our next hymn, the youngest members of our community are going to collect those prayers from you, and they are going to bring those hopes up to the front here, and lay them in the manger.

And as they do, we will be singing a hymn that you have probably sung many times before, the classic hymn of Advent. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, which means, literally, “O come, O come, God-with-us”. It’s a prayer in itself. An invitation to God to break into our hearts, and to change everything this Advent.

And so my first prayer of hope this Advent is for all of us, and that is that we will sing that hymn and mean it. It’s that we will be ready to ask God to come and change everything. And it is that we will hope.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel…we are ready for you. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 24 – Christmas Eve

603196_10151146235676787_1936348159_nToday at the family service I asked all the children who were here to come up for the children’s sermon before this homily. And standing here on the chancel, I asked them to help me remember the Christmas story.

And they stood here, fresh from their performances as angels with homemade wings and shepherds in bathrobes, and they told us the Christmas story. They told us about how Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem, and they looked for a place to stay, but there was no room in the inn. And they told us about how that baby was born in a manger instead, and how the angels and the shepherds came to glorify that child. All of that happened 2,000 years ago, but they can tell that story by heart, just as well as any Christmas eve preacher ever could.

They can tell that story, because someone told that story to them. And we can tell that story, because someone told that story to us. And someone told us that story, because someone, somewhere told it to them. It is a story that, though written down in this holy book, has its real power from being passed from person to person, generation after generation, Christmas after Christmas.

Where did you hear the story first? Was it at church? Was it from a parent or grandparents? Was it from Linus at the end of a Charlie Brown Christmas? Wherever it was, you learned that story. And there’s something about that story that has brought you here tonight, to hear it, to tell it, to sing it, and to celebrate it once again.

This December I’ve been thinking about the Christmas story a lot. I’ve been trying to remember how I first learned the story, and, really, I don’t know. My guess is that it wasn’t just one telling or one moment, but that slowly, year after year, I learned what Christmas was all about by watching the people around me show me what Christmas was all about.

More than any other time of year, at our best, we become joyful people, hopeful people, loving people, peaceful people. We treat others a little better. We smile a little more readily. And we put lights on our houses and send out Christmas cards because we want to share that joy with others.

But this year, maybe like many of you, I noticed something interesting. Certain talking heads on television are telling us that there is a “war on Christmas”. To hear them tell it, Christmas is undergoing a full-blown, devastating attack on every front. And as I’ve listened to people argue about whether the cashier at Target should be saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”, I’ve felt a little sad. Because in a season where we should be focused on the joy that Christ brings to us, we seem to be fixated on the idea that we need to defend Christmas.

I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think Christmas needs defending. At least, I don’t think it needs defending against any outside influence. Because, I really believe that if there is a war on Christmas, it doesn’t happen out there somewhere. Rather, it happens in here. In our hearts. And it’s not just in December. It’s year round.

I’ll tell you why. You might not know it, but though it is December, the new year is just getting started. That’s because while most of us turn over our calendar on January 1st, the church year starts instead on the first Sunday of Advent. That was back on December 1st this year. And on that day we start to prepare ourselves for Christmas. And just four weeks later, Christmas comes. And if you’re just looking at the calendar, you may think that means the year is almost done. But for Christians, it means the year is just beginning.

The birth of Christ is just the start of the story. It’s just the beginning of an incredible journey that lasts the entire year through. It’s the jumping off point. And all the things we feel in Christmas, the joy and hope and peace and love, aren’t supposed to slowly fade throughout the spring, and pop back up next December. They are supposed to grow and become more powerful throughout the year. This…this is just the start.

And if on December 26th this feeling that you have in your heart is gone, then, yes, that war on Christmas was successful. Not the culture war that people talk about out there, but the struggle between choosing to live into the Christmas story that we all know not just a few weeks a year, but every day.

What would it mean to tell that Christmas story every day? I’m not talking about with words. I’m talking about telling it with the way that we act, telling it with how we treat others, telling it with the joy that we give back to the world. What would it mean to not walk through life angry or stressed or fearful because things are changing, but instead filled with grace, filled with love, filled with hope?

I believe that’s possible. I believe that God makes that possible. And I believe that God wants that for us. I believe that because I believe the story of Christmas is tells us that. When humanity had wandered so far away from love and light and grace, God didn’t just send us a message from afar. God became one of us. And Christ taught us how to treat one another, not so much through words, but through actions.

And I think that’s how Christ wants us to tell the Christmas story now. Not by preaching it, not by  arguing over who is giving us what holiday greeting, but by living it. By telling the world by our actions what it means that we are Christmas people.

Tonight in Phoenix, on city streets, another UCC pastor I know is trying to tell the world this Christmas story. This Christmas he is preaching no so much by words, but by actions. He is bringing gifts of shoes and socks and soap and more to homeless and at risk youth who have been kicked out by their families. For many of them, he is the first adult that they’ve ever been able to trust. And through that trust, he is telling them the Christmas story.

Tonight in Afghanistan, as troops come in from patrols, military chaplains are serving them coffee and a little bit of holiday cheer while they are so far from home. And there, in the most unlikely of places, through their hospitality and willingness to listen, they are telling the Christmas story.

And tonight, in a small mountain town in Vermont, a sanctuary full of people are preparing to go back out into the cold night, after hearing the Christmas story, and make a decision about how to tell that story to the world for the next year.

There’s a Christmas carol that you might know. It’s called “Go tell it on the mountain”. It’s appropriate for a place surrounded by mountains, I think. The words are “go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere, go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.”

I love that carol. And I love the idea of going and telling this story. Go tell it on Mt. Snow. Go tell it at the top of Haystack. Go tell it on each one of the Green Mountains. But don’t stop there. Go and tell it in your homes. Go and tell it in your hometowns. Go and tell it in the highways and byways and everywhere you can think of. Go and tell it…Jesus Christ has been born in a manger, and that birth has changed everything for you. Go and tell the Christmas story all year round.

You don’t have to use words to tell it. In fact, it’s probably even better if you don’t. Tell it with you life. Tell it with your actions. But go, and tell it…

Questioning Advent: Day 23 – No Room in the Inn

1483073_10151752722391787_559567358_nThere is a Christian tradition about the spot where Jesus was born. There is a church in Bethlehem that was built over the very spot where Jesus was said to have laid in a manger. It is considered so holy, that three different Christian traditions, Catholic and Orthodox, have laid claim to it for centuries, and now they all have monks that live there, and there is sort of an uneasy truce. The monks still, to this day, sometimes even have fist fights over the space.

Now, I don’t think that’s what Jesus wants for the place he was born. I’m not even sure if that’s the exact place he was born or not, or if it even matters. But what I am sure of is that we remember that place where Christ was first born. We remember it enough to want to know exactly where it was, and to keep that place holy.

You know what we don’t remember? We don’t remember the name of the inn.

Was it the Bethlehem Hotel? The Road to Nazareth Convention Center? The Holiday Inn?

We’ll never know. But, I often wonder if the inn ever realized who they turned away. I wonder if a few decades down the line, they realized that when Jesus’ mom had come to the door, they hadn’t given her a room. They’d given her some hay.

Now, if this was just a story about an innkeeper who missed a chance to open the doors to Christ over 2,000 years ago, I wouldn’t be telling it tonight. But this isn’t about what an innkeeper did 2,000 years ago. It’s about what God did, and what God still does. And it’s about what we do next.

Christ still comes into this world. Christmas still happens. It didn’t just happen once, it happens all the time.

Sometimes God knocks at our doors, and we are asked if there is room in the inn. And sometimes we look out, and we don’t really like what we see, or we don’t like what it would mean to let Christ in, and we close the door and say: “There’s no place for you here”.

But sometimes, even when we don’t really want to, even when we’re not sure we want to open that door up, we do anyway. And that matters. 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 story teaches us about more than just an event that happened centuries ago. It teaches us about opening ourselves up to what God is trying to do in us in this world. And it’s about telling God that, even if we don’t know what it means yet, there is room for God in our lives, and we want to be part of what God is doing.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. It’s time to decide. How are you going to open your door to Christ this year? And how are you going to join the Christmas story?

Prayer: God, as we prepare for the most holy night, we ask that you will give us courage to open the doors of our hearts to you. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 22 – Perfect Love Casts Out Fear

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday when the church lights the candle on the Advent wreath that stands for love. I find each of the four themes we focus upon in Advent to be meaningful, but I confess a strong sentimental preference for this fourth Sunday. I’ll tell you why.

photoTwo years ago today I was in the throes of a love I had never experienced before. (Actually, I still am…but this is about two years ago.) And so on December 22, 2011, I asked the woman who is now my wife to come with me to the Prudential Center in Boston. Together we rode the elevator to the 50th floor observation deck of the Prudential Tower, and we looked out over the city of Boston and beyond.

This was the second time we had been there together. The first hadn’t gone so well. I’m not afraid of much, but on that first visit I had discovered that I was not particularly fond of 50th floor observation decks. We had made it around the glassed-in floor that day, but only because I refused to look down and couldn’t wait to get back on solid ground.

But this night was different. The sun was slowly setting on Boston, and as we walked around the observation deck I pointed out all the places that meant something special to us: the seminary where we met, the Boston Common, the first place we had said “I love you”, and more. And then, standing there fifty stories up, I told her, “You make me feel like I can do all the things that terrify me.”

I didn’t ask Heidi to marry me there. Instead we walked two blocks down the street to Old South Church, her church, where we were attending a weeknight worship service in the chapel. But before we went in, we took a detour to the sanctuary, the place where she and I had spent time sitting and talking early on in our relationship. We we stood up to go, Heidi turned around for a second. When she turned back I was down on one knee. And there, in that sanctuary where we had both learned so much about God’s love and our own love, she said “yes”.

That night Heidi and I were asked to light the Advent wreath during worship. We lit the fourth candle; the love candle.

In Advent we talk about love and sometimes we make it sound like some big theological concept. But, really, love comes pretty naturally. When we love one another, we experience just a small taste of what God’s love for us is like. And in Advent we await a love that is so deep, and so unrelenting, that the same love came down and became one of us, that we would know that love even better.

In the first letter of John there is a line that says, “perfect love casts out fear”. I think that’s true. I also think that love, as I told Heidi, makes us believe we can do all the things that terrify us. And I think that’s what happens when we truly understand at our core that God loves us. The fear is gone, and nothing stops us from doing what terrifies us. And, even better, nothing stops us from spreading that same love to others.

At least that’s what the fourth Sunday of Advent teaches me.

Question: How would you love, in every sense of the word, if you were unafraid?

Prayer: God, thank you for the gift of love you have given us through Christ. God, may your love for us overpower our fear until all that remains is you. And then, filled with your love, may we share that love with others. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 21 – Putting Worship First

IMG_0155This time of year many of us are feeling two things: overjoyed and overwhelmed. There is so much about the Christmas season that is wonderful. But at the same time there is so much on our to-do lists, that we might not give ourselves much time to feel that joy.

This is often especially true for clergy. Tomorrow at my church we have the children’s Christmas pageant. Tomorrow afternoon my wife leads a Lessons and Carols service at another church. And Christmas eve we are back at my church for two services. That means that this weekend is being spent writing sermons, recruiting ushers, and making sure that all the details are taken care of.But at the same time, this year I’ve been consciously trying to devote more time to actually sitting back and enjoying this season. I’ve spent evenings sitting by the tree, helping to bake cookies, and writing Christmas cards. Sometimes I’ve thought to myself, “but there’s so much else that I should be doing…how can I take a break and do these things?” I’ve been talking back to that voice this year. I’ve been reminding myself that God wants us to feel joy, and what better joy than that which is spent celebrating the season of Christ’s birth?

We are in the last days of Advent. A few nights from now we enter the season of Christmas joyously. But today you may be feeling like another obligation is the last thing on your list. A Christmas eve service might feel like another “to do” item on your list. A luxury you can’t take the time for amidst cooking, wrapping presents, and entertaining guests.
 
Do it anyway. Mostly because worship is never a waste of time, but also because you deserve this time to feel the joy of the Christmas season. You need this time to remember what everything else going on around you is really all about. And your soul thirst for this chance to feast on the goodness that is God’s love. Nothing puts a joyful season in better perspective than celebrating Christ’s birth. Bring your families. Bring your house guests. And bring your joy. There’s more than enough room for everyone in this inn.

Question: What is standing in between you and worship this Christmas?

Prayer: Good and holy God, we give you thanks that you took the time to bring us your love in person. This Christmas, help us to make time for you, and the joy that you bring. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 20 – Uprooted Trees and the Ground of Being

IMG_1965Every day or so I stop by the Christmas tree we have up in the sanctuary and check the water levels in the tree stand. And almost every time I end up filling a pitcher with water and filling the empty stand. Others haven been doing this too. The other day a parishioner remarked, “That tree sure does drink a lot.”

This is a particularly thirsty tree. I have no idea how many gallons of water that tree has soaked up right before since we cut it down right before the first Sunday of Advent.

But, if you think about it, that’s pretty remarkable. Even though that tree has been cut down, removed from the snowy field it stood in for years, and brought to the relatively warm church sanctuary where it now resides, it still instinctively knows how to sustain itself. Even though it is rootless, it still draws knows how to live.

Sometimes it can feel like we are rootless too. We can get so far away from what is important, and what sustains us, that we might feel like we’ve just been uprooted and dragged off to another place. We might feel as disconnected from what sustains us as an indoor Christmas tree.

Sure, occasionally we might get a taste of the living waters again. We might get just enough to help us to stay alive. And in that moment we will know to drink. But, in the end, if we stay unrooted, will we ever really thrive?

Come January 6th our church Christmas tree is going to go to some mulch pile or wood chipper. As beautiful as it is, the tree wouldn’t last much longer than that, even if we kept pouring in pitchers full of water. And that makes sense. Eventually what isn’t rooted and grounded in what can give it new life just won’t last.

You and I, we aren’t Christmas trees. We know that. But sometimes it might feel as though we have grown as spiritually dry as a cut pine tree in January. We might long for the places where we used to be planted. We may wish we could just go back to that place we remember and grow again.

The good news, of course, is that we can. Unlike that tree that’s never going back in the ground, the “ground of being”, as Paul Tillich used to call it, is ready to welcome us back. God is ready for us to be replanted and to put down our roots once again. And God is waiting for us to drink up the living water that God wants to give to us.

In the Christmas season, we often find ourselves spiritually connected in ways that we aren’t all year. By a few months later that feeling is often gone. But it doesn’t have to be. This year, stay connected. That feeling you get on Christmas Eve, surrounded by glowing candles in a darkened church, it doesn’t have to come just once a year. Plant yourself in rich soil, and you can be nourished in every season.

Question: What are the ways that you feel rooted in God during the Christmas season, and how can you stay rooted that way all year?

Prayer: God of all creation, even when we are far away from you, we still thirst for your living water. This year, help us to find our roots in you, and in others. Connect us in community. Strengthen us as your body. And help us to find joy and new life all the year long. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 19 – Cheese Grits

Copyright, Southern Living

Copyright, Southern Living

I really like cheese grits. I grew up south of the Mason-Dixon and went to college and seminary in Atlanta, where I solidified my passion for cheese grits. Cheddar grits are great. Cheddar grits with a little bit of jalapeño diced up in them are even better.

But now I live in New England, land of oatmeal. Occasionally there will be sightings of cheese grits at restaurants in the bigger cities, offered as a special by some exiled Southern chef, but those meals are few and far between. Once I took an extra order home for breakfast from a restaurant in Northampton. The waitress encouraged me to put maple syrup on them. Sacrilege.

The other day Heidi said that she wanted to make me pulled pork barbecue and cheese grits. She had never made them before, but she’s a good cook. I figured that if any Yankee could pull them off, it was her. Which is why I found myself searching through a Vermont grocery store this week, desperately seeking some sort of package of grits. It didn’t look promising, but finally, under boxes of oatmeal, and Cream of Wheat, and whatever else passes for acceptable substitutes for what I believe must surely be God’s favorite breakfast food, I found a sad little canister of quick grits made by a less-than-trusted brand.

Better subpar grits than no grits, right? My heart sank as I put them in the cart.

In Advent we prepare to remember something that the world did not expect. There may have been signs that something special was coming 2000 years ago, but no one knew how and no one expected the way it would come. When people went looking for a Messiah, wouldn’t they have looked for a strong and powerful man? One who was rich? One who was well-known to the religious powers-that-be? Would they really have ever looked for a baby born in a barn behind the inn, with an unwed woman as his mother?

But that’s how Jesus did come. And that’s how Christ still comes today.

Last night we had cheese grits with dinner. I can say without a doubt that they are the best grits I have ever eaten. They were perfectly cooked, wonderfully complemented with cheddar, and slightly spiced with the peppers. I turned to Heidi and joked, “well done, thy good and faithful Yankee.” I never thought the best grits of my life would be cooked by a upstate New York girl in a house in Vermont.

But really, I should expect the unexpected. I should expect that because I’m a follower of the one who came to be with us, to transform this world, not in power and might, but as a child. And, like I said, that’s how Christ still comes today: unexpected, lighting up the most lonely and desolate places, changing everything. Jesus still comes into this world in ways that are as surprising as outstanding grits coming out of a Vermont kitchen. And if we just open our hearts up to the possibilities, we will find him all around us, even in those unexpected places. Especially in those.

Question: What surprising places have you seen Jesus this Advent?

Prayer: Holy God, you send our son to bless us in the most unexpected places. As we approach Christmas, open our hearts up to Christ’s presence. Help us to see all the ways that Christ is breaking into our lives and into the world. And give us the joy that comes from finding Christ’s surprising gifts in surprising places. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 18 – Open It

from the United Church of Christ

from the United Church of Christ

We’ve been finishing our Christmas shopping here in Vermont. We try to buy local for as much of it as possible, but there are a few items that you just can’t get around here. For those, we went online. Which means that for the past few days the UPS truck has been sliding its way up our icy road to bring us a box or two.

I should say that most of the gifts aren’t a surprise. We each come up with a short list of things we might want, and we stick to that. But we each usually try to surprise the other with a little something too. Which is why when Heidi texted me from the house yesterday to say a strange box was at the door and she thought it had been mistakenly delivered to us instead of the neighbors I hurriedly texted back, “DON’T OPEN IT!”

This time of year it can feel like the world outside the church is full of gifts and the inside the doors of the church we are screaming, “don’t open it!” In Advent we are quick to remind others that technically the Christmas is not here yet, and that we need to wait. And, though I’m a diehard believer in observing Advent, sometimes it must feel like the world is offering carols and lights and parties and the church is only offering waiting.

And none of us like to wait. We don’t like waiting in grocery store lines. We don’t like waiting in traffic. We don’t like waiting for admissions letters or test results or anything else. So why do we wait for joy in the church?

My mom had a rule. We were allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve. The idea was that we had been waiting a long time, and though the big show was Christmas morning, it was okay to celebrate a little ahead of time. And on the week following the third Sunday, we are called to celebrate a little bit too. This is the week we light that pink candle, that visual reminder of both the purple candles of Advent and the white of Christmas, and talk about joy. And the thing about that is that we don’t have to wait until Christmas Eve, or even Christmas day, to mean it. It may be Advent, but we know what is coming. We know that God is about to bring joy into this world. So, maybe it’s okay for us to practice being joyful?

Sometimes Christians talk a lot about joy, but we don’t really seem all that joyful. When I look around during the Christmas season I see a lot of that. We either have admonitions to not celebrate yet, or we have Christian leaders on news channels using joyless phrases like “the war on Christmas”. But what would it look like if instead of either holding our joy to ourselves, or waging all out war with others, we stopped waiting to share that joy?

What if instead we looked at the world and said, “Go ahead…open it. Open one. Let it be a reminder of what’s about to happen. Because, it’s going to be good?” I believe we can do that. I believe we should do that. And I believe there are more than enough gifts to go around from now until Christmas morning.

Question: If you could give one spiritual gift of joy to someone else between now and Christmas, who would it be and how would you do it?

Prayer: Joyfully, O God, we truly do adore you. Help us to live out that joy together this time of year. Make us witnesses to the joy that Christ brings. And strengthen us to speak joyful words to a world in need of more. Let joy be our gift to the world, and help us to give it with only these words: Open it. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 17 – Socks, Boxer Shorts, and Joy

1456055_550081655069225_381737962_nYesterday a package arrived at our local post office from the UK. My in-laws, who live in Liverpool, had sent a box full of Christmas gifts for my wife and I. Last week a similar one arrived via Virginia from my parents. Heidi and I are lucky. Though we both came out to our parents well before legalized same-sex marriage or “Modern Family”, we never faced familial rejection for being gay. In fact, when we were married last year our families sat in the front pews of the church.

Our wedding day was filled with joy. In fact, most of our days are filled more with joy than with anything else. So, when we come to this third week of Advent when we are called to focus on “joy”, I think about all the blessings I’ve received, including a wonderful marriage, and parents on both sides who support that marriage.

But I know not everyone knows that joy. Because even now, 19 years after I told my parents I was gay, plenty of kids don’t get the kind of response that I received.

The Rev. Jeffrey Dirrim is a pastor in my tradition, the United Church of Christ. Several years ago he started a ministry to LGBTQ youth who were either homeless, or at risk of becoming so. That ministry was called Footsteps because one of the things he did was to make sure they had shoes. Today that ministry has grown into a new church start called Rebel and Divine United Church of Christ. And Pastor Dirrim and the others working in this ministry have become something to those youth that many have never had before: adults they can trust.

When the adults who are supposed to care about you the most throw you out on the street because you tell them who you really are, how are you supposed to believe in joy? When you have a bag packed and ready to go because you think that rejection is coming, how can you feel excited about Christmas? And when many of those same adults do so because of what their churches tell them, how are you supposed to believe in the love of Christ?

This year Rebel and Divine is doing a Christmas shoe and underwear drive. They work tirelessly to somehow turn a $20 donation into brand new shoes, underwear, socks, and more. Then they wrap it, write a personalized card, and deliver it on Christmas morning with an ornament to one of the youth they serve. For many of these young people, it’s the only gift they’ll get this Christmas.

No kid should be treated the way that these young people have been. But I give thanks for the people at Rebel and Divine UCC who are bringing joy to them in the form of wool socks and Converse shoes and boxer shorts this Christmas morning. And I give thanks that there is a way for those of us who have an extra $20 in our pockets to make that joy spread a little further.

I’m joyful today. I’m joyful about a life’s journey that has led to this warm home on a snowy day with the love of my life baking cookies in the kitchen. I’m joyful about a church that embraces us for who we are, and a church that blesses with joy the ministry of Pastor Dirrim and others like him. And I want others to know that kind of joy too.

Question: Can you can spare a little extra this Christmas to spread joy to others?

Prayer: God, you have given us so much to be joyful about in our lives. And yet, this world still feels so joyless sometimes. God, bless the ones who feel rejected at Christmas. Bless the ones who have been left on their own. Bless the ones who do not expect Christmas joy. And bless the ones who want to change that. May they be strengthened by your Holy Spirit to be the bearers of joy to all your children. Amen.

If you can spare something extra this season, and would like to help Rebel and Divine UCC to spread some Christmas joy to LGBTQ homeless youth in Phoenix, please take a look at this link: http://rebeldivineucc.org

Questioning Advent: Day 16 – Scrooge, Charlie Brown, Buddy the Elf, the Grinch, and the Rest of Us

UnknownI 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 want to see again.

This year we’ve watched A Christmas Carol (the Muppet’s version) several times. 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. 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…

And, when you think about it, as much as these are Christmas stories, they could also be Advent stories. Because they’re all about preparing our heart and transforming our lives. We who follow Christ are supposed to use Advent to get ready to transform the world. But that’s often a tall order. Because 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 find peace in the world, until you find peace in yourself.

In the stories many of us love, that happens. 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. Buddy the Elf finds that it is his difference that makes him special. 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 it’s only when we find that serenity that we find we can truly have joy.

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 joy filling you.

Question: What have your favorite Christmas movies or specials taught you about how to find joy?

Prayer: God, you can use anything you want to teach us about you. Speak to us this Christmas through everything around us. Whether we are looking at lights, singing songs, or watching a movie, show us the message of joy that you have for us. And then God, help us to cultivate that joy in ourselves, so that we may then spread it to others. Amen.