After Christmas: Sermon for December 31, 2017

It was a really great Christmas Eve here at the church this year. At the 4pm service the youth and college-aged adults led an unrehearsed Christmas pageant featuring angels, shepherds and their sheep, and a real, live baby Jesus.

At the 8pm service the choir sang and the hand bells played and I preached a sermon about keeping Christmas in your heart all year by letting the light of Christ shine each day. At the end of both services, as always, we dimmed the light, lit our candles, and sang “Silent Night”. Then we walked out into the night and found the streets lined with luminaries.

It was one of those quintessential Christmas moments. Leaving church that night it felt like the world had changed a little. It felt like maybe this year would be the one when the light and meaning of the season would feel close all year long. The next day, Christmas, felt like that too. And the next day after that as well.

But then late in the week, we had to go to Target to pick a few things up. And as we walked through the front doors, I expected that all the Christmas decorations would still be there. The trees would be up, the carols would be playing, the lights would be on. But I got about five feet into the store and realized that it wasn’t still Christmas at all. In fact, four days after Christmas, they were setting up the Valentine’s Day displays.

So much for the twelve days of Christmas. The retail world will go on no matter what, and it won’t be too long until Christmas is out of our minds for another ten months or so, too. And by the time we make it to next Christmas Eve, the whole cycle will begin again.

Some of that’s natural. We can’t stay stuck in one season all year long. But I’m always a bit unsettled by how quickly we shift out of Christmas and on to something else. And that’s why I love the tradition of the church year, and how no matter what is happening outside the church doors, inside the church we celebrate this full season of Christmas. We keep singing carols, we keep the wreaths up. We light the Christ candle.

And we keep telling the story too. Today we read a passage from Luke that talks about Christ’s birth. In particular it talks about some of my favorite characters from the Christmas story, who are also perhaps the most overlooked of all of them: the shepherds.

The shepherds aren’t as impressive as the angels. They don’t come traveling in on camels with gifts in hand like the wisemen. They’re not even infamous like the inn keeper who had no room for Mary and Joseph. They’re just a bunch of regular Joes who were out in the field, trying to work and sleep and keep the sheep from being eaten.

And yet, when Jesus was born, they’re the ones that the angels come to tell about it. Not kings. Not priest. Just a bunch of shepherds who are both terrified and amazed. When the angels leave, they decide to go see this Jesus for themselves. And they find him just as the angels said they would, just born, and wrapped up in the manger.

And when they meet Mary and Joseph they, the lowly shepherds, tell them everything that the angels had said. And everyone who heard them speak was amazed by it. And Mary heard their words, and Scripture tells us that she “treasured them in her heart”.

It must have been an amazing moment. It was the sort of encounter that would be a hundred times more amazing than the spiritual high of leaving church on Christmas Eve, carols sung and candles lit. They had seen actual angels in the fields. They had gone and met this new born baby. They had experienced it all for themselves.

And then, Scripture tells us that they went back out into the fields, and kept on being shepherds. Yes, they were also praising God and giving thanks for it all, but at the end of the day they were right back there with the sheep. They had seen the most amazing things, felt the greatest joy of their lives. They had been fundamentally changed by it all. But out in the fields, the sheep still needed tending, and life still went on.

It’s sort of like how today, no matter how great Christmas might have been, you’re still going to need to restock the paper towels and the laundry detergent a few days after Christmas. And you’re still going to walk into Target, feeling the joy of the Christmas spirit, and you’re going to walk right into a wall of pink cards and red candy hearts.

And shepherd or shopper, you’re going to wonder how you carry the wonder of what you have seen into a world that seems unchanged.

But, that’s the challenge on the life of faith. We have these moments of absolute joy, or light, or understanding. We recommit ourselves to the journey. We say we will carry the light of the Christ candle all year. And then, we meet the world, in all of its mundane busy-ness. And we figure out how to live as transformed people within it.

There is a saying in Buddhism: before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

In other words, in the aftermath of even the most amazing experiences, you still have to keep doing what you have always done. You still chop the wood. You still tend the sheep. You still buy paper towels in a store covered in pink and red hearts.

It’s not the world that has changed. It is us. In Christmas, if we open our hearts wide enough, we are transformed by the love and light of Christ. If we are lucky, we have twelve days to really celebrate that before our world goes back to normal. If we are realistic, we have two or three. But that doesn’t mean that we have to go back too.

Instead, we can be the changed people who now change the world for the better. I don’t know what the shepherds did when they got back to their sheep, other than I’m sure they kept on being shepherds. But I do wonder what else they did. Did they tell others what they had seen? Did they share the light of Christ by sharing the story? Did their lives change just a little? Did the small daily acts they had always done take on deeper meaning?

My guess is that they did. I believe that because I don’t believe you can experience God without being changed. And when you are changed, your world is as well. When you are changed, you become a force for good in a world that needs that goodness right now.

Because you and I are Christmas people, we have been transformed…and so now we transform the world. Tonight, ring in a new year. Celebrate. Enjoy yourself. But tomorrow, remember the light that you held on Christmas eve. Remember your promise to let it shine all year. And then, let it shine. Shine it in the darkest of places. Shine it for others who need to see it. Make the world a little brighter, and a little warmer. That’s how you will know that Christmas has changed you, and that is how Christmas will change the world.

Nothing New to Say: A homily for Christmas Eve, 2017

So, I’ll let you in on a little minster’s secret: the Christmas Eve sermon is one of our least favorites of the entire year.

Here’s why. It’s not because we don’t love the season. Most of us truly do. And it’s not because we have to write a long sermon. Usually these are pretty short.

Instead, it’s this: we’re worried you’ve heard everything we are going to say before.

That’s true for me. I preach about fifty sermons a year, and this is the one where every year I’m left wracking my brain. I want to say something meaningful about Christmas. I want to say something so profound and to tell the story to you in some sort of new way, and make it real.

But the reality is this: I can look back at every Christmas sermon I’ve ever preached, and I can summarize them all in three don’ts:

1. Don’t be like the innkeeper. When the love of God comes to your front door, don’t say there’s no room at the inn.

2. Don’t limit Christmas to one day a year, or even one season. Make Christmas a year round affair.

3. Don’t extinguish the light. Christmas is about the light of Christ coming into this world. Each of us has the choice to let that light of God’s love burn brightly within us for the year, or to put out the flame.

IMG_7664So, that’s it…those are all the Christmas sermons I’ve ever preached boiled down to three lines. And I really don’t have a lot to add, because that’s everything I want to say about Christmas. That’s why this is one of the hardest sermons to preach all year. Nothing changes, and there’s nothing new to say.

But maybe…maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s the good news. Because maybe the fact that the story never changes, no matter what, means that there is hope for this world.

According to a highly scientific source, my Facebook feed, 2017 wasn’t a great year for a lot of people. There’s a lot of sadness, a lot of anger, a lot of misunderstanding. And I keep hearing people say that they can’t wait for this year to be over.

I’ve been thinking about that this Advent. In Advent we concentrate on four main themes here in the church: hope, peace, joy, and love.

But, I think about hope, and I think about the high school students I work with at a local school, and how they aren’t that optimistic about the future.

And I think about peace, and I think about the saber rattling between nations that we see, and how we may be closer to nuclear war than we’ve been in nearly fifty years.

I think about joy, and I think about how hard it has felt for so many to find joy this year.

And I think about love, and I think about young men marching on Charlottesville this summer, shouting racist and anti-semitic slurs, and I think about how far we have to go when it comes to loving our neighbors.

And in the face of all of this, the same words preached here last year, and the year before that, and all the years before that, by all the preachers this pulpit has seen, still apply. That might be boring…or it might be the greatest news you could receive.

Two thousand years ago God looked down into a broken world and, despite the mess that people had made of it, God loved them anyway. And on this night we celebrate that love coming into the world, not as a conquering army, but as a little baby, a new life, that would change everything.

Two thousand years later, we still mess up this world. But two thousand years later, the story is still the same. God still loves us. God still chooses to come into this world. God still gives us light that is bright enough to overcome any darkness.

And each Christmas, God also gives us a choice…how are we going to respond to that love?

I go back to those three “don’ts”, and I think of a few “do’s”. And so, don’t be the innkeeper, shutting God’s love out. Instead, open the door of your heart wide, and say that there is room at the inn.

And don’t let the joy and kindness of Christmas be a once a year event . Instead, know that how we treat one another, on July 25th says a whole lot more about how well we really keep Christmas than who we are on December 25th.

And, finally, don’t extinguish the light that you have been given. Instead, tend to it. Fuel it. Let it burn so brightly within you that others can see it and find hope in it. Because this world needs a little light a little hope right now.

My prayer for you, my prayer for the world thus Christmas, is that Christ’s light will shine so brightly in all of us this year that this world will be just a little better for it next December 24th. To be a Christian, to believe that something special happened on this night, is to choose to live in hope, and to pass that hope on to those who need it the most.

I believe in hope because I believe that God loved us 2000 years ago on a night in Bethlehem, and I believe God loves us even still.

And on that note, I’ll leave you with a spoiler alert: the words you’ve heard from me tonight are probably pretty close to the words you’ll hear from me next year. But rest assured, they’ll still apply. Every year, they’ll still apply. And that is very good news indeed.

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?

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?

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?

Carrying the Light: A Homily for Christmas 2015

Each December, when people start asking me about the different Christmas Eve services we have here, I get one question more than any others: “But which one has the candles?”

We love fire on Christmas Eve. For a lot of us it just doesn’t feel like Christmas until we light our candles, and raise them up as we sing “Silent Night”.

That makes sense. On Christmas Eve we gather to tell a story that’s been told for about two thousand years now. Through the centuries Christians have told it in words. They’ve told it in song. But, from the very beginning, they’ve also told it in light.

Light is a huge part of the Christmas story. There’s the light of the angels that floods the shepherds’ fields. There’s the light of the star that brings the Wise Men to Bethlehem. And there’s the Gospel of John tells us that, “the light shines in darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”

That light, the one we gather around tonight, is the Light of Christ. The baby whose birth we are celebrating would grow to be the very essence of hope, peace, joy, and love.

So while candles are always a nice touch, we can never forget the fact that on Christmas Eve they symbolize something so much bigger than just flame itself. They proclaim that the Light of Christ has once again come into this world.

That’s because Christmas is about more than something that happened in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. It’s about God’s love that still somehow chooses to come into a broken world. It’s that love that still compels us all to gather here each December 24th, to light these candles.

And I think we do this in part, because we know at some level that light changes everything. It can brighten the longest nights, and banish the most bitter cold. It can make new pathways clear, and it can show us that there is nothing to be afraid of in the dark.

But all of those things can only happen if that light is first allowed to shine.

Right after I first moved here a couple of years ago, I was asked to preach at a nighttime worship service out on Star Island. And if you’ve never been to Star Island, the first thing you need to know is that you can only get there by boat. It’s out in the middle of the ocean, about seven miles off the coast.

There is this old stone chapel on the island, one that gets very cold and dark at night. And the night I was preaching I was told everyone would walk up to the chapel together. But I decided I should go up early to look over my sermon first. And so, I found myself navigating up this rocky path in the dark, and walking into an empty building.
And that’s when I discovered that there is no electricity in the chapel. No light switch. No lights, in fact. Just pitch black darkness.

And, sitting there, with a sermon I could not read, I wondered why no one had thought to tell me about this.

But that’s when the most amazing thing happened. I looked down the rocky path I’d just stumbled up, and I saw a line of people walking. Each one was holding a lantern with a lit candle in it. And as they walked into the chapel, one by one they hung their lantern up on hooks set high in the walls.

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Chapel Lanterns at Star Island.

By the time everyone was there, the chapel absolutely glowed with light. And the light transformed everything.

What’s true of lanterns is so much more true of the light of Christ. It lights us up in ways that nothing else can, and it changes us. But more importantly, it has the potential to light and to change the whole world. Because of that, it’s important to remember that it was never something for us to keep just for ourselves.

And so, at Christmas, we get to make a decision. Are we going to, as the old song goes, hide our light under a basket? Or are we going to let it shine?

To put it another way, tonight will you just hear the Christmas story? Or will you decide that this year you are going to become a part of it?

Later in the service we will turn down all the lights, and begin to spread the flame from the Christ candle. And when your candle is lit, you’ll be able to see what is right there in your pew. And that will be enough…for you.

But when we begin to sing Silent Night, and we stand up and raise our candles, something will change. Suddenly the flame of your candle will join that of your neighbor’s. And together, our candles will light this entire sanctuary. That’s because when we share our light with the world, and with one another, everything looks different.

This is the moment many of us love best on Christmas Eve. It’s beautiful. But it’s also fleeting. It only lasts a few verses. But the good news is that when we blow our candles out, that feeling doesn’t have to end.

Christmas is not just about seeing the light of Christ. It’s about picking up your light and letting that light live within you. And it’s about lifting it up and shining it for all the world.

The thing about being a follower of Christ is that even when we blow our candles out, people should still be able to see Christ’s light burning within us. Not just once a year, but every day. And in the darkest of times and places, they should be able to see that light burning all the more clearly.

That’s what Christmas is all about. It’s about refusing to give into the hardness and anger and fear of the world. It’s about choosing instead to be a light of compassion, a light of peace, and a light of love. And it’s about letting Christ’s light shine in you, so that the lives of others may be lit by it.

And so, may your candle burn brightly tonight. But may it burn even more brightly tomorrow, and then every single day after. And this Christmas may the light of Christ once again bless us and bless this world. 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.

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 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.