Joy as Resistance: December 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

nes-classic-edition-in-hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magnify: A Sermon on Baptismal Promises for May 31, 2015

We usually hear the story of Mary around Christmastime. On the third Sunday in Advent we read about how the angel Gabriel came to Mary and gave her the surprise of her life. She was pregnant, and not by the guy to whom she was engaged. And she asks the angel, “How did that happen? That’s impossible!” But Gabriel just replies, “nothing is impossible with God.”

Mary goes from there to visit her cousin Elizabeth, a woman who was not supposed to be able to be pregnant, and yet who was about to give birth to a baby who would grow to be John the Baptist. And when Mary enters the house John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. And when she tells Mary that, Mary responds with what we’ve come to know as the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

An icon from the Taize community.

An icon from the Taize community.

And now, here we are, in the end of May, reading what may sounds a lot like a Christmas story. And it may feel out of place. But in truth, this story comes up twice a year in our lectionary, once near Christmastime, and once in late spring, right about seven months before Jesus was born, and about the time when Mary would have been figuring out that something was up. And so today, on the day when we in the church remember the Visitation, we read the Magnificat again.

That word “Magnificat” is Latin and it literally means “my soul magnifies”. And when Mary, a woman who was not wealthy or powerful or likely to be chosen for anything that had to do with royalty, really realizes the importance of what she has been asked to do, those are the first words she says: my soul magnifies the Lord. That’s her first response.

It’s sort of an odd turn of phrase in today’s language, though. When you think of what it means to “magnify” something, what do you picture? I can’t help it but I always go straight to a magnifying glass, like the kind I played around with as a kid. Except I wonder what it means to magnify the Lord. Because as a kid I’d use a magnifying glass to make something that was small look bigger. Hold a magnifying glass over tiny writing and suddenly it is readable. Or look at grains of sand through it, and all of a sudden you could see different colors. The seemingly insignificant became bold.

And that’s wonderful, but God’s problem is not that God is too small. God is immense beyond our wildest imaginations, and we only need to open all our senses up to know that God is all around us. But sometimes that is difficult. Sometimes for as much as we want to see and feel and hear evidence of God’s love, we just can’t. And that’s when we look for signs of God around us. And, often, we find them in others.

That has often happened to me. Times in my life where I have felt lost or uncertain or wrestled with doubt, I was able to look to other people and see God’s love in them. It was life changing. And it taught me that the way we live magnifies the Lord, not just for ourselves, but for others.

And so, that’s when the magnifying glass comes in handy. Not because God needs to be made bigger, but because our attention to, and understanding of, God does. We are the ones who need the magnification that the glass provides, not God. We need help to refocus, and to see things in their proper light. Because it is by looking at people like Mary, and what she did, that we are able to understand more about God, and about God’s love for us.

Mary said “my soul magnifies the Lord”, and that’s really true. Mary becomes a magnifying glass through which our focus is changed, and God becomes clearer to us. By magnifying the Lord, Mary teaches us what it means to be loved by God, and chosen by God to do surprising and amazing things.

And Mary teaches us that it’s not enough to just see God more clearly. Because God also requires of us action. Because just as Mary had to be an active participant in the story of Jesus’ birth, we too have to be active participants in helping to bring Christ’s light into this world.

We can make the choice to magnify God in this way with out lives. But in order to do so, we have to look at ourselves, and see what kind of lens we are. Have we covered ourselves so that the light of God cannot penetrate us? Have we shut our souls so that the warmth of God’s love is never reflected to others?

Or, have we cleared off the lenses of our life, and are we letting God’s light shine through them? Have we chosen to live our lives as magnifiers of God’s love?

I ask you those questions today because I am going to ask you some other questions later in the service. After the sermon, and the hymn, we are going to be baptizing our newest brother in Christ. Gavin’s parents are going to bring him forward, and they are going to make promises about raising him in the faith, and teaching him about God. And Gavin’s godparents will also do the same thing. But it won’t stop there.

And that’s because we, the gathered congregation, are asked to make promises too. Because baptism is also about community. It’s about a congregation saying, “yes, we will love this child and teach him and help him to grow in love for God”. Those are serious promises. And they are promises that ask you to live your life in a way that will magnify God for Gavin as he grows up in this place.

And that’s true not just for Gavin, but for every child and young person who comes through our doors. The job that each of us has, not just the parents, is to help to teach the children and youth in our community what it is to be a Christian, and what it means to live your life in service to something greater than yourself.

Parents are such an important part of that. Church community is so important, but children learn even more about faith at home than they do at church, because they are with their parents so much of the time. And how their parents live out their own faith, how they magnify God, will shape their childrens’ spiritual lives for as long as they live. The choices they make about faith will never be forgotten.

But parents can’t do it alone. I recently read an article about children and youth in church that told me something I’d never known. It said that a child or a youth needs at least five interested adults in their church community in order for them to really connect with their faith and feel a part of the church.

Think about that for a moment. Five adults. So maybe one could be me, and another could be Pastor Cat. I hope we are both that for our youth. But what about those next three or more? Who will they be? A Sunday school teacher? Their handbell or choir director? A volunteer youth group leader? Maybe an adult who always takes the time to ask about their week? Or the one who sleeps on the hard vestry floor overnight when there is a lock-in, or cooks breakfast the next morning?

Who will be the adults who will magnify the holy for the next generation? Will you be one of them?

You don’t need any special training to do that. You don’t need a seminary degree, or one in early childhood education. And you don’t need to be versed in the latest music or trends. You simply need to care about the children and youth in our church enough to embrace what it means to be an intergenerational church, and to live your life as a magnifying glass for God’s love.

When people ask me what our goal is here with our children and youth, and what we want them to learn, I think they expect a list of things. Learn the Lord’s prayer, learn about the Bible, learn the stories of Jesus by heart.

None of that is a bad idea. I hope that by the time our youth graduate from high school they will know all that and more.

But more importantly than that, these are the two things I hope the young people in our church learn first: 1) That God loves them, and 2) That we love them too. If they take nothing else away from a children’s sermon or a Sunday school lesson, I hope it’s that. The rest will come in due time, but it will only stick if they know those two other things first.

That is something to remember on baptism days especially. Because there is a long line of children that have been brought up to this same baptismal font, including some of you decades ago who still sit in these same pews. People who are not still with us made promises to them too. And because of that, they sit here today, and they sit in other churches elsewhere, ready to make promises to another. There’s real beauty in that.

And today we will join our promises with them, and we make the promises again with another beloved child of God. We make the promises to support Gavin and his family. And in a real way we tell Gavin that we already love him, and that God loved him first and will love him all his days, and even beyond. That is the promise of the font, and it is one that we all can magnify in our lives together. Amen.

Alarming and Amazing: A Sermon for Easter Sunday, 2015

Mark 16:1-8
16:1 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.

16:2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.

16:3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

16:4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.

16:5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.

16:6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.

16:7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

16:8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

It is Easter Sunday in the church. It’s the day of flowers and trumpets, Easter egg hunts and the Alleluia chorus. It is a day of joy, one without compare, and no celebration is too big on this holiest of Sundays.

But I’d like for you to humor me for a moment, because before I talk about Sunday, first I was to talk about Thursday.

Last Thursday night we had our annual Holy Week Tenebrae service here. In that service the Gospel story of Christ’s last hours is told in pieces, and one by one the lights here in the sanctuary are lowered until we are left in almost total darkness. And Thursday night we left the sanctuary in silence and we waited for Good Friday, and for the day when the world did the worst it could to a man who was God’s love personified.

We do that in the church during Holy Week. We go through the motions of remembering Christ’s betrayal, and suffering, and death. And we are remembering something from the past, something that happened all those centuries ago. But in a larger way, we are telling a story that still makes sense today.

Because the reality is that though today is Easter morning, we live in a Good Friday world so much of the time. We live in a world where violence, addiction, injustice, hatred and poverty all too often surround us. A world where we see pain and suffering up close. And a world that some days may feel just as dark as the sanctuary was on Thursday night, and just as dark as the tomb was all those centuries ago.

But…what if it doesn’t have to be that way?

The Gospel today tells us that on the morning after the Sabbath, on the first day that they could, three women went to the tomb where Jesus had been buried. One of them was Mary Magdalene, and another was Mary, the mother of Jesus. And they hadn’t been able to properly prepare him for burial on Friday and so there they were, his mother and two women who had loved him, grieving deeply for Jesus and all the hope they had lost when he died. And they were trying desperately to just be able to say goodbye properly; to just have that one moment.

And as they walked they had one big problem: They didn’t know how to roll the stone away from the tomb.

That was a problem because in front of the tomb, the people who had buried Jesus had put this huge, heavy stone blocking the entrance. And they just had no idea how they were going to move that, and how they were going to be able to get in to prepare Jesus’ body.

And it’s while they are still trying to figure out how to do it, while they are really just talking about logistics, that they come upon the tomb and discover something shocking: the stone is gone! And they walk into the tomb and Jesus is nowhere in sight. Instead a man dressed in a robe is just sitting there.

Scripture tells us that the women were quote-unquote “alarmed”.

That’s one way to put it.

My guess, though, is that as they stood there in that empty tomb, with a stone inexplicably rolled away and the body of their son and brother gone, they were more than a little “alarmed”.

And the guy in the glowing white robe, the one they’ve never seen before, very helpfully says to them, “Don’t be alarmed!”

(I could be wrong, but I think “don’t be alarmed” is sort of the Biblical equivalent of, “Don’t be mad…I can explain this.”)

So, “Don’t be alarmed,” he says, “you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here.”

He tells the women to go on ahead to Galilee, and tell the other disciples. And he tells them, “you will see him there!”

And Scripture tells us that they did something that may seem surprising: they ran away, and they were afraid.

IMG_5277_2The three women had just seen the most unimaginable, amazing thing they had ever seen. They’d been given news that was literally unbelievable. And contrary to the way we think of Easter, their first reaction was not joy or awe or celebration. It was alarm. And fear.

Truth be told, I think I would be alarmed too. Because none of this makes sense. Stones don’t roll away on their own. People don’t rise from the dead. And, and this is the big one, we don’t get the kind of second chances that they’d just been given.

Because that’s what Resurrection is all about. It’s about second chances. It’s about a new lease on life. It’s about the world meeting God’s love in the flesh and responding not with joy but with fear. And it’s about that love still having the last word anyway, and even then not to condemn us, but to love us even more.

It’s about the biggest, heaviest, most immobile stones in our lives being rolled aside like they are nothing. Because, compared to God’s love for us, they are.

Most Christians would say that the cross is the sign of our faith. But I’ve heard it said before that maybe there should be another one. And, maybe, it should be a stone.

Because in the end even the cross could not destroy God’s love. And it is that rolled away stone that tells us that truth.

And so, here we are, about 2,000 years later after that first Easter morning. And despite all that has happened since, despite every attempt of the world to roll that stone back and seal love into that tomb, it hasn’t happened yet. And even in the hardest of days, God’s love still somehow rises again.

That is amazing. And, truth be told, that is alarming. And here’s why: because it means there is hope. And hope is messy business.

It’s messy because here is what hope does: it makes you change your plans. Hope makes you go from someone who is walking to the tomb of their friend to perform one of the saddest final acts of love imaginable to someone who is running from the graveyard believing that maybe, just maybe, what that man in white said is true. Maybe Resurrection is real.

You go from accepting as inevitable the worst case scenario to believing in the possibility of new life.

And you go from the comfort of complacency, to the affliction of knowing there is something better waiting.

Resurrection is joyful.

Eventually.

But, truth be told, first it shakes you up and it changes everything. It is “alarming”. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

I was curious about that word “alarming” this week, and so I went back to the original language, the Greek in which the New Testament was first written. And like so many things, that word doesn’t exactly translate well. Because the original word that was used when they first wrote this story down can mean “alarmed” but it can also mean something else: “amazed”.

I don’t think it’s an accident that you can confuse the two. Because when it comes to Resurrection, when it comes to the new life that is offered in Christ’s love, “alarmed” and “amazed” are two sides of the same coin. It is amazing, but the alarming part is that once you know Resurrection, nothing will ever be the same again.

Because the truth is this: at some point in our lives, we have all been in the tombs. We have given up hope, we have felt pain, we have lost what we loved. We have questioned how a world can allow so much suffering. And, perhaps, we’ve wondered where God is in all of it.

That’s human. And that’s what any good person would ask. But it’s not the end of the story. Because the end of the story, and the start of a whole new one, comes from the man who sits in that same tomb saying “he’s not here…he’s been raised.”

And so, you get to choose whether you will be too. You are a part of this Resurrection. You are called to something better with God. And it may at times be alarmingly difficult, but it will be amazing.

And soon, you will see the signs of Resurrection all around you, in the most surprising of places. You will see it at the bedside of the 82 year old man who on Palm Sunday seemed headed for the grave but who on Good Friday was sitting up in his hospital bed talking and laughing.

You will see it in the face of the addict who is able to put down what was killing her and to live life clean and sober.

You will meet it in the form of the high school youth at our lock-in on Friday, who talked to me about their commitment to standing up to bullying if they see it at their school.

You will hear it in the words of the one who once hated those who were different from them, but now sees the image of God reflected back in every person they meet.

Ice thawing on Easter morning on the Squamscott River.

Ice thawing on Easter morning on the Squamscott River.

And you will even see it in the thawing river and the melting snowbanks, because even God’s creation itself knows about Resurrection, and it cannot keep quiet.

This Resurrection stuff; it’s everywhere if you look for it. And it’s waiting for you to walk past the rolled away stones, come out into the world, and be a part of it too. Because we have all been invited to this Resurrection. All of us. The stones keeping us in our tombs have been rolled away, and a new day is waiting.

Alleluia Christ is risen…may we rise with him. And may we be amazed. Amen.

Magnify: Sermon for December 21, 2014

Luke 1:46b-55

1:46b “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

 

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When Catholic friends of mine come to visit Protestant churches or worship services, they always notice the differences. Most Protestants don’t take Communion every week. And we don’t stand, sit, and kneel throughout the service. But the thing I have heard more often from my Catholic friends than not is this: Where’s Mary?

My grandmother was a first generation Italian American, and a Catholic. Her name was Maria, though everyone called her Mary. Just about every family in her neighborhood had at least one Maria or Mary in it. And when she named her own kids, three have names derived from “Maria”, including my mother. And even when she and a priest had a bit of a theological disagreement, centered around the fact she married my Protestant grandfather, and she left the church, her devotion to Mary continued.

And so, like my Catholic friends, I often wonder why we in the Protestant tradition don’t lift up Mary’s story more often. Because, as one of you said to me this week, “without her, we wouldn’t be here at Christmas”. Mary remains one of many strong women in the Bible who changes the course of our faith and yet, like some of the other women in the Bible, we don’t tell her story nearly enough.

That’s unfortunate because we, and especially our kids, need to hear stories of Biblical women. But, most importantly, Mary’s story is not just one for girls and women. It is a story for people of all genders to remember, because it is a story of strength, of courage, and of choosing to glorify God.

In today’s reading we hear about how the angel Gabriel came to Mary and gave her the surprise of her life. She was pregnant, and not by the guy to whom she was engaged. She asks the angel, “How did that happen? That’s impossible!” But Gabriel just replies, “nothing is impossible with God.”

Mary goes from there to visit her cousin Elizabeth, a woman who was not supposed to be able to be pregnant, and yet who was about to give birth to someone else we know; John the Baptist. And when Mary enters the house John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. And when she tells Mary that, Mary responds with what we’ve come to know as the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

The word “Magnificat” literally means “my soul magnifies”. And when Mary, a woman who was not wealthy or powerful or likely to be chosen for anything that had to do with royalty, really realizes the importance of what she has been asked to do, those are the first words she says: my soul magnifies the Lord. That’s her first response.

It’s sort of an odd turn of phrase in today’s language, though. When you think of what it means to “magnify” something, what do you picture? I can’t help it but I always go straight to a magnifying glass, like the kind I played around with as a kid. Except I wonder what it means to magnify the Lord. Because as a kid I’d use a magnifying glass to make something that was small look bigger. Hold a magnifying glass over tiny writing and suddenly it is readable. Or look at grains of sand through it, and all of a sudden you could see different colors. The seemingly insignificant became bold.

And that’s wonderful, but God’s problem is not that God is too small. God is immense beyond our wildest imaginations, and we only need to open all our senses up to know that God is all around us. But that’s the issue. Because sometimes, despite how big God is, and how much God surrounds us everyday, we just don’t acknowledge that God is present. Because it is our understanding of God is way too small.

And so, that’s when the magnifying glass comes in handy. Not because God needs to be made bigger, but because our attention to, and understanding of, God does. We are the ones who need the magnification that the glass provides, not God. We need help to refocus, and to see things in their proper light. And it is by looking at people like Mary, and what she did, that we are able to understand more about God, and about God’s love for us.

Mary said “my soul magnifies the Lord”, and that’s really true. Mary becomes a magnifying glass through which our focus is changed, and God becomes clearer to us. By magnifying the Lord, Mary also teaches us what it means to be loved by God, and chosen by God to do surprising and amazing things.

And Mary also teaches us that it’s not enough to just see God more clearly. Because God also requires of us action. Because just as Mary had to be an active participation in the story of Jesus’ birth, we too have to be active participants in helping to bring Christ’s light into this world.

And this reminds me of something else I learned about magnifying glasses as a kid, something that I am perhaps glad our own kids are down in church school right now and so will not hear. And that is, that you can use a magnifying glass to set things on fire.

I learned this as part of some sort of lecture given to kids in some youth program I was in about how to survive if you are ever lost in the woods. I’m not sure why they taught us this, because the likelihood we were ever going to be lost in the woods was much less than the likelihood we’d accidentally set our front lawns on fire, but I digress.

And so the teacher taught us that we should always carry a small magnifying glass if we are hiking so that if we get lost, and need warmth, we can make a fire. You just take a bunch of old, dry leaves, hold a magnifying glass over them, and the sun will hit the magnifying glass, and the reflection will burn so hot that the leaves will smolder and you will have fire.

Now I’m not recommending anyone try that, but I think there’s a greater meaning here. Because each of us, like Mary, can choose to magnify the Lord. Each of us can be the lens through which the world comes to see God in new ways. And each of us can let the light of Christ shine through us bright enough that the places in our world that need light and warmth the most can be set ablaze with Christ’s love.

We can make the choice to magnify God in this way with out lives. But in order to do so, we have to look at ourselves, and see what kind of lens we are. Have we covered ourselves so that the light of God cannot penetrate us? Have we shut our souls so that the warmth of God’s love is never reflected to others?

Or, have we cleared off the lenses of our life, and are we letting God’s light shine through them? Have we chosen to live our lives as magnifiers of God’s love?

The literal meaning of the word that the original Greek text uses, the one we translate as “magnify”, is “extol”, or to “praise” or “glorify”. And I like the idea that by magnifying the Lord we are glorifying God. In our historical tradition one of our catechisms even asks what our purpose in life is, and the answer is “to glorify God and enjoy God completely”.

And so, to me, the question is how do we use the lens of our life to magnify and to glorify God?

As we prepare for Christmas Eve, and as we reject today on “love”, the theme for this last Sunday in Advent, I think that’s what it’s all about. We glorify God by loving God, and loving one another, and loving others. And I think that letting God’s love pour through us unencumbered for all to see is the truest way of glorifying God.

Because you can spend your life talking about God. You can tell people all about God and how wonderful God is. But if you don’t live your life with love, nobody is going to believe you. They’re just hollow words, and the world is not any better for them.

But on the other hand, if you love, in every sense of that word, if you even just try…you glorify God, and your soul magnifies the Lord.

And so, today we lit that fourth candle, the one for love, as a sort of prayer. We ask that God will help us to love more this Christmas. We strive to love God, to love one another, and to love the world just a little better this year.

It’s that love that will bring us to the manger on Wednesday night. And it’s that love that we pray will remain with us all year, as we use our lives to magnify the love of Christ that is breaking into this world, and making it brighter.

May your last days of Advent be a blessing, and may we all prepare ourselves for the task of helping the light that shines in the darkness to burn brighter this Christmas. Amen.

What Really Matters: Sermon for July 21, 2013

120x120_8611183Sibling rivalries are big in the Bible. There’s Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, the Prodigal Son and the brother who stayed home. It’s a constant theme. And a lot of the time it’s about resentment, and about which sibling is doing the work, and about which isn’t doing anything worthwhile. In other words, the Bible is a lot like real life.

The story we read today from the Gospel is about another sibling rivalry. Jesus is visiting the home of two sisters; Mary and Martha. And Martha is well named, because she is like the Biblical Martha Stewart. She is in the kitchen cooking and cleaning and trying to make sure that everything goes exactly right. And she is stressed out and looking for help.

And, as it turns out, Martha has this sister named Mary. And Mary isn’t helping. She’s not even in the kitchen. Instead, Mary is sitting down, at Jesus’ feet, just listening to him speak.

Finally Martha has enough. She says, “Jesus, tell her to get in the kitchen and help me.” That sounds fair enough to me, but Jesus has a surprising answer: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

In other words: back off Martha…Mary got this one right.

It’s easy to sympathize with Martha. No one likes to be doing all the work while someone else gets to just sit down and relax. It reminds me of a story I heard once about a college mission trip. A bunch of students traveled to a reservation in order to help a tribe to rebuild their community center. And everyday they got up on ladders, and painted walls, and worked on the roof.

But there was one student who didn’t. Every day while all the others were working away, he was down playing with all the kids on the reservation. He taught them games, had fun with them, and entertained them. And all the others in the group were so frustrated with him, the same way Martha was with Mary.

And I probably would have been too. But the mistake here is to think that Martha is the only one doing anything of value, and that Mary is doing nothing. The mistake is to confuse being busy with having your priorities in the right place.

Now, let me stop here to say that I can sympathize with Martha. When I was first engaged, Heidi made an observation. ”Do you know,” she asked, “that you never stop doing something?” At the time it was around 10pm, and we were watching a movie together while I sat with my laptop, typing away at some work.

I didn’t know what she was talking about at first, but slowly I realized how addicted I was to being busy. Like, instead of being fully present in a conversation, I’d be washing the dishes too. Or instead of making sure that I was taking Monday as my sabbath day, I was returning calls that could have waited until Tuesday. Somehow I had convinced myself that not multi-tasking was a waste of time. To not be busy was some sort of sin in my mind.

Now, you might get that. Maybe you have several to-do lists and full calendars. You might feel like you never reach the end of what you are supposed to do. That’s not uncommon. And as a culture we are passing it on to our kids. Even they have become over scheduled. Productivity matters more than ever, and we have become a generation of Marthas. It’s not hard to imagine that most of us would have gone out to Jesus and said, “hey…tell my sister to stop doing nothing and get to work.”

And, in the end, there’s nothing wrong with hard work. But there is something wrong with having skewed priorities.

Here’s what Martha was missing: Jesus, God incarnate, was literally in her living room. And she is too busy doing dishes to stop and notice. He is teaching, but she is entertaining. He is talking about the greatest work one can do, and she just can’t stop working.

But that’s not all that different from us. Jesus is often a lot closer to us than we realize. Though we are wrapped up in the busy-ness of life, God is around us, waiting to show us something more. Waiting to spend some time with us. And sometimes that means we have to put down the to-do list, and just stop.

Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with hard work, but sometimes I think we use it to avoid focusing on what matters. A lot of times I’ll meet people who have a sense of faith or a sense of belief and they’ll tell me, sort of apologize, for why they’ve never been to church. And, without provocation, they’ll give me a long list of reasons and tell me, “you have no idea how busy I am. I wish I could make it, but I don’t have time.”

And that’s okay…I’m not mad at them or judging them.

But mostly, I usually just feel bad for them. Because usually they are coming to talk to me when something in their life has gone wrong, and they are finding that they don’t have the spiritual community they need or the prayer life they want or sense of comfort that faith can give to you.

Something bad is happening and prayers are like a Hail Mary pass, sent down the line to Jesus, a wide receiver you vaguely know, but haven’t really ever spent any time with. And all of a sudden, all those things that kept us too busy to spend some time with God, don’t feel all that important at all.  And that’s when you know that maybe your priorities have been a bit out of whack. If you’re lucky, you figure it out before it’s too late.

It’s a challenge, though. And that’s why sometimes we need to be conscious of giving ourselves the time and the space we need to connect with God. There’s a word you might have heard of before: “sabbath”. A few generations back Sunday was treated by Christians as a time when the work stopped, and you focused your attention on God. Stores were closed, youth soccer games weren’t played, and you took the time to be with family and with God. In some religious communities, such as the Orthodox Jewish community, this still happens, though on Friday and Saturday.

That’s what Mary was doing. She was setting aside time for God. She was having Sabbath. And Sabbath isn’t about doing nothing. Sabbath is about being deliberate about what we do, and saying that cultivating a relationship with God comes first on our list of priorities. Mary got that. And she was saying, “tonight the dishes can wait…Jesus is in my house, and how often does that happen”.

Giving yourself Sabbath time can be a wonderful tool because it can help you to look at what you are trying to fill that God-sized hole in your heart with, and it can get you to stop filling it with stuff that really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be on Sundays, it doesn’t even have to be a day. It’s just about giving yourself some space, maybe every day, to connect with what really matters. It’s about saying that God doesn’t get squeezed in at the end of the day, but that your relationship with God shapes the day instead. It’s about getting your priorities straight.

When I was a hospital chaplain, my supervisor told us a story about a college professor once. The professor stood in front of a class with a big Mason jar. And next to it he had some golf balls, a bunch of ball bearings, and some sand. And he gave his class what at first seemed like an easy assignment: put them all in the jar, and put the top on.

It was, of course, harder than it looked. They tried putting in the sand first, and then the ball bearings. They tried to mix them all together. They tried to squish everything in. It never worked.

The professor took his turn. He put the golf balls in first. Then he put the ball bearings in, and they trickled down to fill the space around the golf balls. And finally he poured in the sand, and had plenty of room to put on the top.

He explained to his students that life was a lot like that Mason jar: we only have limited space, and we have to make room for the things that matter first. He explained that the golf balls represented the big things in our life: faith, family, and what matters most. The ball bearings were things like work and other necessities. And the sand; that was the stuff that doesn’t really matter. He told his students that only by placing the things that matter the most in that jar first would they ever make it all fit. The things that matter define the space. The sand just fills the spaces.

The same is true for us. When we put the things that matter the most first in our lives, things like our relationship with God, we find ourselves less and less defined by the meaningless things.

I’ll close with this. At the beginning I told you that story about the college group that went to serve on a reservation, and the one guy who never seemed to be doing any of the work. On the last night, the tribe held an event to thank them for all they had done. And they were incredibly appreciative of the new community center. But then, all of the children, and even the parents, began to come up to that one young man who had never seemed to be doing anything except play with the kids. And they put their hands on him and blessed him. And it became clear to his classmates that he had been doing something extraordinary during his time there, and that in the end, that is what the tribe would remember. His priorities were in order, he was there to serve, and he was the one who left with a blessing

That’s who I think all Christians want to be in the end: the ones who gets their priorities straight, and who leave with a blessing. And the only way for sure that I know how to do that, is to turn to God before all else. Amen.

Don’t Forget Jesus: Sermon in Preparation for New Year’s 2013

Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve, which means that a lot of people are going to be spending time today and tomorrow coming up with their New Year’s resolutions. Here are some of the most popular: exercise more, get fit, quit smoking, quit drinking, get organized, save more money, and get out of debt.

We talk about resolutions a lot on New Years. We make a list and we promise ourselves that this year we are going to do better. But the thing about resolutions is that they are more than just a game plan for how things will go; they are signs of what we want for the future. They are symbols of what we want to accomplish. They are our hopes and dreams laid bare. And some years we’re better at fulfilling them than others.

Maybe you’ve made your list already. It may have the typical items that I listed above. And you will, at least for a while, do your best to make those things happen. And those hopes might be there all year, showing up from time to time like those bills in your mail box for the gym membership that you only used three times.

It’s okay. We all do it, to some extent. We have the best intentions, the best laid plans, but we don’t always have the follow through. Every year, though, around this time, we start to think about how we would like to live, and what we would like to happen in our lives. But, often, there’s something that we leave off that resolutions list.

I’ll get back to that. Because first I want to look at the story we read today from Luke’s Gospel. This is one of the few that we have about Jesus from his childhood. In fact, from the time he’s an infant, until the time he’s about 30, the Bible tells us very little about what his life was like.

But in today’s story Jesus is on a sort of trip with his parents. He’s 12 years old, and it’s the Passover, and so he’s gone with them to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship. At the end of the feast, his parents left with a large group. And they got about a day away, and then they realized that they were living every parents’ nightmare: they had left their son back in Jerusalem.

Can you imagine what it was like in that moment? “I thought you had him?” “No, I thought you had him!” They had to go back and check all the rest stops. And then they rushed back to the city and for three days, three whole days, they looked around Jerusalem. The hotel, the restaurant… And then, finally, they went back to the Temple. And there was Jesus, all of 12, sitting in the midst of the rabbis and scholars, asking questions and giving answers.

When Mary sees him Scripture tells us that she asked, and this is a bit paraphrased, “Why did you do this to us? Don’t you know that we were worried sick?” In other words, Mary sounded a lot like the mother of 12 year olds everywhere. But Jesus, calmly, replies, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know I would be here in God’s house?”

My guess is Mary and Joseph must have had their hands full with the teenaged Jesus. I’m pretty sure that when your son is also the son of God, it’s probably not easy to predict what he’s gotten himself into. But what Jesus says to his mother in the passage, even though she doesn’t quite get it, is telling: Why were you looking for me anywhere but here? Why didn’t you expect me to be here in the Temple, learning and praying?

So, keep that story in mind as we go back to what we were talking about first: New Year’s resolutions. Someone asked me once why the church acknowledged January 1st as the start of the New Year. According to Christian tradition, the new church year started back on the last Sunday of November, which was the first Sunday of Advent. According to that tradition, the significance of today is not that it’s New Years, but that it’s the first Sunday after Christmas. So, aside from changing over our calendars, why does this day matter inside the doors of this church?

It was a good question, and one I wasn’t so sure about. The church year having started over a month ago, it seems redundant to talk about a new year again a month later. And so I researched, and found out that really, this tradition of January 1st as New Years is fairly new, in the big scheme of things. The Gregorian calendar wasn’t introduced until the 1500’s, and in England the first of the year, until the 1750’s, was in March. Russia even held out with the old Julian calendar until the 20th century. And one thing is sure. Jesus, as a good Jewish rabbi who followed the Hebrew calendar, was not popping open champagne at midnight on January 1st.

So why does it matter? Why should January 1st have any more meaning for the worship of the church than the start of the fiscal year months from now? Well, it turns out that there is some merit. January 1st is eight days after we celebrate Christmas, the birth of Christ. And in Jewish tradition, eight days after a baby boy is born, the family has a bris. But what makes New Year’s special is not that one activity that we all know about that happens at the bris, but the other, which is the naming of Jesus, and his reception into the covenant of Abraham. Churches worldwide celebrate this day, and some call it the Feast of the Holy Name. And the significance is not so much that Jesus got a name, but that the world found out what it was.

New Years can be like that for you too. This is the year when, like the ones there at Jesus’ bris, you can learn who Jesus is. It can be a start of a whole new phase of your relationship with Christ. It can be the day when you call out that Holy Name, and decide that you are ready for the next part of your life with God. And it can be a day when you make those resolutions for the coming year.

Only this year, you can go a bit deeper. I’m not saying don’t make your typical resolutions, if that makes you feel good. I’m saying make a few extras. Make a few that really have the power to transform your life.

I’ve frequently talked to people who have told me that their spiritual life, and their relationship with God, sometimes feels a little like a “I’ll get around to it” item on their to do list. It’s something they know they want to work on, but there’s so much else to do, and they seem to just forget. In a way, it’s not that different from getting a day out of town and realizing that you forgot to bring Jesus along.

Here we are not even a week after Christmas day, and only on the sixth of the twelve days of Christmas, and chances are good that the attention we gave to Christ on Christmas eve is already taking a back seat to life starting to get back to normal post holidays. Once New Years day passes, we’re back to life as usual.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. This can be the year when you don’t leave Jesus behind, but instead you go looking for him. This can be the year when you make your relationship with God a priority. When you find something, whether it’s prayer or meditation or Scripture reading or a small group, that fills your soul and nourishes you. This can be the year when your relationship with God comes off the “I’ll get around to it” list, and instead defines that list.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, started a tradition still found in some Christian churches today, which was to spend New Year’s Eve together in prayer. The idea is to reflect on the past year, think about the next one, and focus on your relationship with God. Now, John Wesley was really mostly trying to keep his parishioners out of the bars and streets on New Year’s Eve. But there’s something about that idea that makes sense. Not just for New Year’s Eve, but for any day when you want to start again. Begin it in prayer, and reflection, and decide where you want to go next, and call on God’s name to help you.

Tomorrow night, I’m not asking you to come here. I’m not asking you to give up champagne or appetizers, or a midnight kiss. I’m not asking you to spend an evening in solitude talking to God. But I am giving you this challenge: find some time tomorrow to think about the past year, to think about your relationship with God, and to think about what you want for it in the coming year. And then, think of one or two ways that you will commit to making it stronger. I’ll take the same challenge. And my guess is that if everyone in this church does the same, the next year will be pretty incredible, because if all of us are in this together, then we are going to journey to some pretty incredible places together. Places where we will worship. Places where we will learn. Places where we will serve.  Places where we will find God’s love together.

May this year be one of great spiritual growth for you. May it be one where you learn the name of Jesus, and never fail to see him for who he is, and what he is doing. May it be one where God does new things in your life, not just on one day, but on all of them. And may it be one where you resolve to live with hope, and with love for God. Christ’s blessing be upon you in 2013, and always. Amen.

Journey Through Advent – Day 17

Monks brawling in Bethlehem. Copyright, The Times of London

Monks brawling in Bethlehem. Copyright, The Times of London

When we tell and retell the most important stories of our life, we often find that every time we tell it, there are a few details that we can’t leave out of the story. Whether it’s the name of the hotel where you stayed on a honeymoon, or the hospital where your children were born, or what the course looked like on the day you got that hole in one. There is some detail about every important story of your life that may seem insignificant, but that you can’t leave out.

The story of the nativity, the birth of Christ, is no different. There’s one detail we never leave out: When Mary and Joseph got to the inn, they were told there was no room for them there.

 Have you ever wondered whether that was really true? Have you ever wondered if maybe there was room at the inn? Maybe the innkeeper had a couple rooms left, but he saw this unmarried couple with this woman who was obviously pregnant, and decided maybe he didn’t want to rent them a room? Or maybe, even if there weren’t any rooms left, they could have found some place for a woman who was nine months pregnant and about to give birth?

But they didn’t. And so Jesus wasn’t born in the inn.

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”.

The question is, when you tell the story of your faith, do you want to be the inn that closed its doors? Or do you want to be something else?

Scripture tells us that out in the fields, the shepherds heard the baby had been born. And they got up and they came to the manger and saw the new thing that God had just done in the world.

That’s who I want to be on Christmas Eve, and everyday. I want to be the one who doesn’t close the doors to my heart when God is about to do something new, but the one who hears about it, and comes running. When God works in this world, I want to be a part of that story. Like that piece of ground in Bethlehem, I want to be the everyday thing, that becomes holy, not because of who I am, but because of who Christ is. I want to be a part of the story.

I can be. And so can you. And so can we all.

“Resolutions” – Sermon for New Year’s Day, 2012

Luke 2:22-40
2:22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord

2:23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”),

2:24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

2:25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.

2:26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

2:27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,

2:28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

2:29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;

2:30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,

2:31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

2:32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

2:33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.

2:34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed

2:35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

2:36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,

2:37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.

2:38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

2:39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

2:40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Someone asked me once why the church acknowledged January 1st as the start of the New Year. According to Christian tradition, the new church year started back on the last Sunday of November, which was the first Sunday of Advent. According to that tradition, the significance of today is not that it’s New Years, but that it’s the first Sunday after Christmas. So, aside from changing over our calendars, why does this day matter inside the doors of this church?

It was a good question, and one I wasn’t so sure about. The church year having started over a month ago, it seems redundant to talk about a new year again a month later. And so I researched, and found out that really, this tradition of January 1st as New Years is fairly new, in the big scheme of things. The Gregorian calendar wasn’t introduced until the 1500’s, and in England the first of the year, until the 1750’s, was in March. Russia even held out with the old Julian calendar until the 20th century. And one thing is sure. Jesus, as a good Jewish rabbi who followed the Hebrew calendar, was not popping open champagne at midnight on January 1st.

So why does it matter? Why should January 1st have any more meaning for the worship of the church than the start of the fiscal year months from now?

It’s a question I pondered when reading today’s text, which on the surface seems to have little to do with the New Year. In it, Jesus goes to the Temple in Jerusalem for the first time. And when he comes Simeon, who is this old, wise, holy man, takes him into his arms, and he knows who he is. And Anna, an old, holy woman who stayed in the temple and prayed all the time, sees Jesus and begins to praise him. And Joseph and Mary, already aware that their child is somehow different, leave the Temple with their eyes open.

And that’s what a new beginning, in the truest sense of the word, is all about. Because when Simeon held the child, his eyes were opened to who he was. When Anna saw him, she knew in her heart that something new was happening. When Joseph and Mary walked out that door, their whole lives had changed. It was, spiritually, a new year for them. And everything was going to change.

We know about new years in the church. We celebrate them all the time in one way or another, because we are constantly looking for the ways that God is doing something new in us and in the world. And if you use that as the benchmark, January 1st is as good a day as any to stop, look around, and decide how you want to work with God in the new year.

And as it turns out, January 1st makes a lot of sense. In Jewish tradition, eight days after a baby boy is born, the family has a bris. Today is the eighth day after Christmas day, so today would be Jesus’ bris. But what makes today special is not that one activity that we all know about that happens at the bris, but the other, which is the naming of Jesus, and his reception into the covenant of Abraham. Churches worldwide celebrate this day, and some call it the Feast of the Holy Name. And the significance is not so much that Jesus got a name, but that the world found out what it was.

New Years can be like that for you too. This is the year when, like the ones there at Jesus’ bris, you can learn who Jesus is, or like Anna and Simeon, you can truly see him and be amazed.

Today can be a start of a whole new phase of your relationship with Christ. It can be the day when you call out that Holy Name, and decide that you are ready for the next part of your life with God. And it can be a day when you make resolutions for the coming year.

We talk about resolutions a lot on New Years. We make a list and we promise ourselves that this year we are going to do better. But the thing about resolutions is that they are more than just a game plan for how things will go; they are signs of what we want for the future. They are symbols of what we want to accomplish. They are our hopes and dreams laid bare. And some years we’re better at fulfilling them than others.

Maybe you’ve made your list already. It may have the typical items: eat better, exercise more, do better at work, get your life organized. And you will, at least for a while, do your best to make those things happen. And those hopes will be there all year, showing up from time to time like those bills in your mail bow for the gym membership that you only used three times.

That’s okay. Be gentle with yourself. Because January 1st isn’t magical. This isn’t the only day of the year that things can change. God has given you 365 days this year to do that. And God can help you use all of them to make the resolutions that matter.

February 2nd is my special day. It’s my sobriety date. And when I look at my big celebrations of the year, February 2nd matters infinitely more to me than January 1st does. And maybe that’s because on February 2nd years ago I didn’t wake up with hope and a plan for how the year would go and with my eyes set towards the future. I woke up feeling crummier than I ever had before, and wondering if God could help me make a resolution and stick to it.

I know some of you have been there too. And like me, you know that we had to be ready to make that resolution, and we had to be ready to ask God to do the next. February 2nd is my new year, because it’s the day that taught me, in the most tangible way, that God’s grace is real.

You may have your own. Maybe it’s your sobriety day. Maybe it’s the day you were married. Maybe it’s when you became a parent. Or maybe it’s when something turned in your soul, and you decided that you wanted to become the person that God created you to be. It could have been January 1st, or February 2nd, or October 4th, or just yesterday. If God could use February 2nd, then God can use any day to change a life. God doesn’t need January 1st, because they all work fine.

But that means that this day is as good as any.

This day is as good as any to make a resolution, not just for the year, but for the rest of your life. And maybe you’ve already joined the gym, or bought the file folders to organize those papers, or set your budget, and that’s great.

But are there other resolutions that you want to make this year? Are there ways that you want things to change in your life? And are any of those ways spiritual? Are any about the way your want to love God in the new year? Are any about how much time you’d like to spend in prayer, or helping those who need it, or just getting to spend more time on your relationship with God? If they are, maybe they are worth being on that resolution list.

They may feel too daunting, or too big. “Be a better Christian,” on the top of the list sounds so unspecific. So hard. You can’t measure that by a scale or a bank account balance. In fact, you probably won’t be able to measure it at all. But chances are, like Anna and Simeon, the people who see you will notice that there is something different about you, and that God is doing something new in you. It may not happen on January 1st or 2nd or 3rd, but it will happen. And, it will continue to happen.

John Wesley started a tradition still found in some Christian churches to spend New Year’s Eve together in prayer. The idea is to reflect on the past year, think about the next one, and focus on your relationship with God. Now, John Wesley was really mostly trying to keep his parishioners out of the bars and streets on New Year’s Eve. But there’s something about that idea that makes sense. Not just for New Year’s Eve, but for any day when you want to start again. Begin it in prayer, and reflection, and decide where you want to go next, and call on God’s name to help you.

May this year be a watchful one for you. May it be one where you learn the name of Jesus, and never fail to see him for who he is, and what he is doing. May it be one where God does new things in your life, not just on one day, but on all of them. And may it be one where you resolve to live with hope, and with love for God. Christ’s blessing be upon you in 2012, and always. Amen.

Christmas Eve sermon, 2011

When we tell and retell the most important stories of our life, we often find that every time we tell it, there are a few details that we can’t leave out of the story. Whether it’s the name of the hotel where you stayed on a honeymoon, or the hospital where your children were born, or what the course looked like on the day you got that hole in one. There is some detail about every important story of your life that may seem insignificant, but that you can’t leave out.

The story of the nativity, the birth of Christ, is no different.

We know this story: Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, the three wise men. We know about how there was no room at the inn. And we know about how there was a manger.

It would be an important story without any of those things, because this is the heart of it: “God loved us so much that God became one of us, so that we all might love God and one another.”

But that’s not the way the Gospel tells it. The Gospel tells us about a baby, born to an unmarried couple, under extraordinary circumstances. And they tell us where it happened. And where it didn’t. It wasn’t enough for the Gospels to just say “he was born” or even “he was born in Bethlehem”. They tell us he was born in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.

A manger isn’t much. It was a sort of container for the hay that the animals ate. It wasn’t a crib, or a bed, or anything like that. It was perhaps the most unexpected resting place for a newly born Messiah. For God, on God’s first night as one of us.

But as much as we remember that manger, we also remember why Jesus was there. We remember that when Mary and Joseph got to the inn, they were told there was no room for them there.

Have you ever wondered whether that was really true? Have you ever wondered if maybe there was room at the inn? Maybe the innkeeper had a couple rooms left, but he saw this unmarried couple with this woman who was obviously pregnant, and decided maybe he didn’t want to rent them a room? Or maybe, even if there weren’t any rooms left, they could have found some place for a woman who was nine months pregnant and about to give birth?

But they didn’t. And so Jesus wasn’t born in the inn.

There 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 2000 years ago, I wouldn’t be telling it tonight. But this isn’t about what an innkeeper did 2000 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.

There’s a good chance that if you are here tonight, some part of you wants to be a part of that. Some part of you wants to be a part of love made real, of God being active in our world, of a world that can change. Some part of you wants to be a part of the Christmas story. Maybe not the one that’s written in the book with the shepherds and the manger and the wise men, but a part of the Christmas story none-the-less.

The denomination that this church is a part of, the United Church of Christ, has a saying that I’ve always liked. We say, “God is still speaking.” I believe that. I believe that God is not only still speaking, but God is still active in this world, and God is still writing the Christmas story. God is still writing the story of what happened when Christ came into this world as the Prince of Peace, and what happened next. And you can be a part of that story.

The question is, do you want to be the inn that closed its doors. Or do you want to be something else.

Scripture tells us that out in the fields, the shepherds heard the baby had been born. And they got up and they came to the manger and saw the new thing that God had just done in the world.

That’s who I want to be on Christmas Eve, and everyday. I want to be the one who doesn’t close the doors to my heart when God is about to do something new, but the one who hears about it, and comes running. When God works in this world, I want to be a part of that story. Like that piece of ground in Bethlehem, I want to be the everyday thing, that becomes holy, not because of who I am, but because of who Christ is. I want to be a part of the story.

I can be. And so can you. And so can we all.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that that baby born that night grew up to become an adult. And when he did, and he was asked what we God asked us to do, he answered this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, open the door, open your heart, and let it all in. If Christmas is about the incarnation of God, and this is what God incarnate saw fit to tell us, then this is the ultimate Christmas message

When the tree is put away, when Christmas dinner has been eaten, when the nativity sets go back into their boxes, these things remain. And the ultimate test of how well we have celebrated Christmas this year will not be in what was under the tree or anything like that. It will be in how well we opened our hearts, and let that Christmas message in. May we do so this Christmas, and always. Amen.