Choosing to be in the story: Homily for Christmas Eve, 2016

One of the things I talk about a lot in sermons this time of year is Christmas movies and specials. And my absolute favorite is a Charlie Brown Christmas. I love Snoopy decorating his dog house, and Charlie Brown picking out the scrawny little tree. I even love the different dances they all do when Schroeder plays his piano.

I’ve probably watched it every year of my life, and so it’s just not Christmas to me until Charlie Brown shouts “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” And then Linus takes center stage, the lights go low, and he recites the Christmas story.

When Linus finishes he says very simply, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

And the truth is that Linus preaches a better sermon than most preachers. His simple retelling reminds Charlie Brown why we do all of this in the first place. And, every year, if we have ears to hear, it reminds us too.

Some might wonder why we come here each Christmas eve. The event we’re celebrating happened about 2,000 years ago. The baby whose birth we celebrate has not actually been a baby for a long, long time. And yet every year we gather and hear the same story, and light the same candles, and sing the same songs.

I think part of the reason is that, like Charlie Brown needs Linus, we need the reminder too.

That can feel especially true when the light in the world seems to be so dim. For so many this year has not been what they hoped. The world seems, in some big ways, broken. Cities like Aleppo cry out for peace. Communities struggle with addiction and isolation. Our very country feels for many like a harder and more unkind place.

I’ve heard more than a few people say that they are ready for 2016 to be over.

And yet, before we can get to New Year’s Eve, we have to go through Christmas. And that is good news. Because for these near 2,000 years, no matter what the year has brought, good or bad, this yearly reminder of God’s love has come in the literal darkest of days.

The real meaning of Christmas, the one that Linus proclaimed to Charlie Brown, is indeed the birth of this child. And the amazing part is that we believe that by Christ’s birth God chose to not just be the creator of the world, but to be a part of this world in a new way. We believe that God became one of us.

In other words, Christmas is about God loving us so much that God chooses to participate in this world. Christmas is about us not being alone anymore, no matter what else is happening.

That’s the first part of the Christmas story, one that was written down in this book centuries ago. But it’s not the end of the Christmas story. Not by a long shot.

You see, if Christmas is about God’s participation in this world, then it’s also about our own participation in what God is doing now.

The story we read tells us that. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the Wise Men. They all said “yes” to being a part of this story.

And now each of us has the choice of whether or not we want to be a part of the Christmas story. Because each year we close another chapter of this story that we are writing with God. And on Christmas Eve, we get to choose to start writing a new one. We get to choose to participate.

In a real way, that’s what all these candles that we are about to light are all about. At the beginning of the service we lit the Christ candle up here, proclaiming Christ’s birth, proclaiming God’s participation with us. And as we end the service we will spread the light from that candle to one another. And as we hold it up, we will proclaim that we are willing to be a part of the Christmas story this year. Not just tonight. Not just tomorrow. But everyday.

A-Charlie-Brown-Christmas-image

One of the last scenes in Charlie Brown’s Christmas comes when the whole gang gathers around the sad, little Christmas tree he has picked out. And, together, they string the lights, and hang the ornaments, and wrap it in the warmth of Linus’ blanket. And when they do, it is transformed, and it is beautiful.

That’s the power of community. The light each of us holds tonight may not seem like much on its own. But taken together, it is brilliant. And just like Charlie Brown’s tree was transformed by the participation of many, this world can be changed and be made beautiful too. And the more of us who decide to be a part of that work, the more of us who choose to participate in what God is doing in this world, the more likely and quickly that change will be.

Scripture tells us that the light shines in darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. And that is true. But tonight, at the end of the service, you will blow out your candle and step back into the world. So when you do, you will make an important choice. Will you let that light die out? Or will you instead take it into your heart, and carry it with you everywhere that you go

If you do that, then you will have given this world the greatest gift that you ever could. And you will have joined this Christmas story that God began for us all these years ago. And, together, our light will shine in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it. And it will indeed be a Merry Christmas. 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?

The Light: Homily for Christmas Eve 2014

John 1:1-5

1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

1:2 He was in the beginning with God.

1:3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being

1:4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

1:5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

10885152_10100748574687168_7267670351363878850_nThere’s a joke that you can tell how long a minister is going to preach by what is written in the bulletin. If you look down and see “sermon” printed there, you know it’s going to be a while. But sometimes you see the word“homily”. I joke that homily is Latin for “really short sermon”, and it means I won’t be talking long.

You all just checked your bulletins, didn’t you…don’t worry, it’s okay. If you didn’t, it says “homily”. I’m not going to preach long this evening because my sense is that you already know this story, or else you probably wouldn’t be here. And usually the role of the preacher is to retell the story in some way and make it relevant to your life today, but I’m going to guess that more than perhaps any other story in the Bible, we all know how this one goes.

There’s Mary, and the angel, and the most unexpected of births. There’s the trip to Bethlehem, and no room in the inn. And there’s the stable, and the manger that stands in for the crib. And finally, the shepherds, who come because the one they have been waiting for has finally been born.

We know this story. Even Linus tells it at the end of a Charlie Brown Christmas, and I know I can’t beat Linus when it comes to telling this story.

And so, I’m not going to tell you the Christmas story of what happened two thousand years ago tonight. I’m not going to tell it to you because I’m going to ask you to tell it instead. And I’m going to ask you to tell it not just tonight, but tomorrow, and through all twelve days of Christmas, and then every day from then on until we arrive here again at the manger next Christmas Eve.

But first, we just heard five different lessons from Scripture. The first four were from that familiar Christmas story that we all know. But the fifth was from the Gospel of John, and it’s a passage that is traditionally read on Christmas eve. And at first it might even seem a little out of place with the rest of the story. But listen to it again:

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”

That light that they’re talking about there is more than just a candle or a bulb or even a star. That light is Jesus Christ, the light that comes to shine in the darkness. And as wonderful as the story of the nativity is, with the shepherds and angels and manger, that light is the truly good news of Christmas.

And it’s good news not just for 2000 years ago, but for today. Because the reality is that this is a world that is often not what it should be. There is too much war. Too much poverty. Too much injustice. And too much pain. And there is too little hope. Too little peace. Too little joy. And too little love.

You and I, we know what it is like to live with the reality of darkness. Because we are human. And yet, because of Christmas, because of the very choice God made to send hope into this world in the form of a newborn baby, we also know that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Christmas is about the light overcoming the darkness. It’s about a birth 2000 years ago, but it’s about so much more than that. Because Christmas isn’t just about what happened back then. It’s also about the ways God is still choosing to come into our world. And, perhaps most amazing of all, it’s about us too.

And that’s because Christmas is a story of choices, good and bad. It’s Mary saying “my soul magnifies the Lord” when the angel tells her she is pregnant. But it’s also the innkeeper shutting the door on Mary and Joseph, and saying that there’s no room in the inn.

And it’s about our choices too. Because we each have a choice about how we are going to respond to the story of Christmas. We can leave here tonight, our hearts unchanged, and we can forget this story until next Christmas eve.

Or, we can make another choice. We can choose to be a part of the Christmas story. And we can choose to live as reflections of this light that has been sent to shine in the darkness.

My hope is that you will choose the latter. And my hope is that you will choose to tell the story of Christmas with your lives, not just tonight, but long after the tree is taken down, and the presents are opened.

It’s no coincidence that on Christmas eve we symbolize our joy and hope by lighting candles. We are, after all, celebrating the light of the world. And so in just a few minutes we are going to be lighting our Christmas candles by passing the flame of the Christ Candle that we lit tonight. And as that light spreads throughout the sanctuary, we will end with Silent Night, and as we sing the last verse we will lift our candles into the air.

And so tonight, when you lift up your small part of the light of Christ, let it be more than just going through the motions. This year, as you lift your light, make a promise to yourself that you will lift that light all year long, and that you will be a part of the Christmas story. And make a promise to the world that you will use your life to spread a light that will shine with joy and hope and love and peace in the places that need it the most.

If you do that, then you will truly understand the meaning of Christmas. And the light of Christ will shine just a little brighter in this world because of 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…