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.

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?

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.

The Second Part of the Christmas Story: A sermon for Christmas Eve, 2012

603196_10151146235676787_1936348159_nEvery year, on Christmas eve, we tell the same story. We read a passage from the Bible, usually the one I just read from Luke, and we remember what happened one night over 2,000 years ago. You can probably tell it with me:

A census was being taken. And there was an unmarried couple named Joseph and Mary who were about to give birth. They had to go and be counted, and so they journeyed to Bethlehem. But when they got there, there was no room in the inn. And so Mary had the baby out in a manger. Not long after, the angels went to the shepherds and announced the birth, and they came and saw the baby there. And the baby was named Jesus.

We know this story. But every year we read it anyway. And, not to take away the suspense, but if you come back here a year from tonight, we’ll be reading it again.

Part of the reason is that it’s the only one we have. A lot of people have asked me during the course of ministry, why does the Bible end when it does? We have the New Testament with all these books written back in the first and second centuries, but then we have nothing. It’s almost as if the story ends. We don’t get an update each Christmas on what’s going on. We don’t get a Christmas letter filled with news from Jesus. We don’t get a new version of the Bible delivered every December. And so every year we read this story again.

You might be wondering, what’s the point? The story never changes. And if you’re talking about the words found here in the Gospel that we read every year, you’re right. But if you’re talking about the real story, the bigger story, the story about Christ’s birth and what came next, then that’s different. Because the Christmas story does change from year to year, and I’ll tell you why: The Christmas story changes, because we, you and I, change.

You know that question about why the printed story ends in this book? I think it’s because of this. I think it’s because this book tells the story of Christ’s first followers, back when there were only a few. But not long after this, a lot of other people got to know about Christ, and got to know the story of the first Christmas. And if we told the stories of all the people who have come to understand what the baby born that night was all about, if we tried to write them all down, one book would not contain them.

The national denomination this church is a part of, the United Church of Christ, has a motto that we use. We say, “God is still speaking…” And by that we mean that God did not stop being active in our world and in our lives 2,000 years ago. We mean that God still is working in this world. God still is transforming it, and transforming us. God isn’t just in the past. God is here now.

And we, the people of a still speaking God, are still listening. And we are still hearing the stories, not just ones written so long ago, but also ones all around us. And even if this story we hear on Christmas eve every year isn’t changing, we are. And the most miraculous part of it is this: If we are really changing, if we are really being transformed by God’s love for us, then we are becoming people who not only listen to the Christmas story but who also become a part of it ourselves.

If you are truly want to get to know that baby who was born 2,000 years ago, if you truly want to follow the person he grew up to become, then you cannot help being changed. And you cannot help becoming a part of his story. And that means you cannot avoid becoming part of the greater Christmas story, a story of hope, and peace, and joy, and love.

And that’s a good thing. Because the world needs all of those things in abundance right now. The past few weeks, we’ve seen that so clearly. One of the reasons that I believe the Christmas story still matters for us is that I believe God cannot be done with us if we are still inflicting pain on each other. God cannot be done with this world. And that means that God’s people cannot be done working to transform it either.

And that means that you and I, the people who come to celebrate the birth of a child so long ago, have some work to do. And we have a story waiting for us to become a part of it. The child born tonight grew up to be a man who told us to live lives of peace. Who told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Who told us to turn away from things that ultimately mean little, and instead turn to what really matters; to turn our hearts towards God and towards one another.

This time of the year, we sing a lot of carols about that child. We celebrate in ways we don’t the rest of the year. And we talk about things like peace, and joy, and hope. But if we really mean it, if we really want to be a part of this Christmas story, then we can’t pack those things away next week along with the wrapping paper and the ornaments. We have to be a part of this story every day, and not just every December.

If we are truly doing that, then we will have incredible stories to share ourselves. Stories of kindness and compassion where they were totally unexpected. Stories of generosity in times of scarcity. Stories of peace in a time of violence. Stories of hope in our darkest hours.

What if you were to tell the second part of the Christmas story tonight? What if you were to read this passage we read tonight, and then you were to say, and here’s my second part. Here’s my story about what happened next. Here’s my story about how the love and life of this child born tonight has changed me. Here’s what happened when this Gospel story and my life’s story intersected, and everything changed. The story is the starting point. But you are what happens next.

Christmas is not just about the story of Christ being born in a manger 2,000 years ago. Christmas is about the story of Christ’s love being born in our hearts everyday. And it’s the story of how you respond. Not just tonight, and not just tomorrow, but everyday.

Next December 24th, I invite you to all join us back here once again. Here’s a spoiler: We’ll be reading the same story. But it’s just the start of the story, and between this year and next year, your Christmas story will have changed. And the more that you open your hearts up to Christ’s love this year, the more you let it be born inside of you, the better that story, your story, will be next year. May Christ’s light shine in your hearts brightly this Christmas eve, and may it shine ever brighter in your lives, and in our world, all through the year.  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.

There Will Be Signs – Sermon for December 2, 2012

531347_584509721564509_303926534_nLuke 21:25-36
21:25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21:36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”I’ve talked before about growing up in the South, and having friends who went to very fundamentalist churches. My friends often went to churches that preached that we were in the “end of days” and that the time was coming when the world would face an apocalypse and violent end times. And sometimes on the side of the road there were signs that said things like “repent, the kingdom of God is coming” or “Jesus will return soon to judge us all.” All around us was the idea that something really bad was about to happen, and Jesus was the reason.

So, as a child I always found that Christianity to be a little scary. It’s those childhood fears that get stirred up when I read passages like the one we have today. It’s never comfortable to read about destruction, and this passage is no exception. Here we have Jesus foreshadowing for his followers the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and, even more disturbingly, the end of the world.

This happens every year. Every first Sunday in Advent those of us who are in churches that subscribe to the lectionary, the calendar of Scripture passages that is used by Roman Catholics and most Protestants, are assigned a passage from one of the Gospels which features Jesus describing the end of days.

Now, that’s a lot different from what we’re getting elsewhere in the world, isn’t it? Here we are, a little over a week after Thanksgiving, and already in December, and for many of us the preparations for Christmas are well underway. Maybe we already have our tree, or are well into our Christmas shopping. Maybe we’ve put up lights or gone to Christmas concerts. In short, maybe we’ve spent this Advent doing all the things that make the Christmas season so different from the rest of the year.

I’m not a Grinch. This season is actually my favorite time of year. But I am aware that Advent didn’t always used to be an elaborate run-up to the day itself. Advent used to be second only to Lent as a time of preparation and prayer in the church. Traditionally churches didn’t celebrate weddings during Advent or have any other major celebrations. Advent was about preparing for the celebration that was to come. And, more importantly, Advent was about learning how to wait, and how to watch.

It’s been said that Advent is really about two different Advents. We are waiting and watching for two different comings. The first is the one that happened over two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. It’s the story of the birth of Christ in a humble manger. It’s the Son of God come in the most unexpected way to perform the most extraordinary of missions. It’s a story that in and of itself is worth commemorating year after year.

But there is a second coming that we’re waiting for too. And that’s what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel passage. Jesus is talking about the time when he will come, not for the first time, but for the final time. And he is talking about how everything is going to change. Hear the words of Christ again:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

We will know, says Jesus. There will be signs. They will be all around us. And when we see them we will know that Christ has come again. Jesus goes on: “stand up, raise your heads” for when you do you will see what is taking place. Jesus says that the signs we see will be slight at first. They will be like the new leaves on a fig tree that foreshadow the coming of summer. They will be subtle, but they will be there.

So what are the signs around you? And what are they pointing towards?

Some see what is happening around us as a sign. War, hunger, financial disaster, and all the rest. There are some churches that are using what is happening in the world as a way to pray upon the fears and anxieties of those who are at a loss as far as what to do next. They say that we are in the last days, and that the violence and conflict and crises in the world are all the indications that we need. But put your faith in Christ, as they understand him, and on the last day, in the final judgment, you will be saved.

It’s very much like the message I heard down south growing up. The world is going to hell, and the best you can hope to do is save yourself. So believe as we believe, and you will be saved.

I don’t think that this is what Jesus meant, exactly. Now, make no mistake, Jesus is talking about things changing completely. Jesus says directly that “heaven and earth will pass away.” But, despite the anxiety that comes from this text, this is not a text that is finally about destruction. There is something here that is much deeper than that.

Here we start the church year in darkness. Here we start the watch in gloom. Here we begin our preparations for a joyous season in a time of anticipation and worry. But we don’t remain there. And we don’t remain alone.

This morning we lit the first candle on the Advent wreath. This first Sunday in Advent, like each of the other Sundays in Advent, is given a larger theme. Next week, the second week, is all about peace. The third week is about joy. And the final Sunday before Christmas, fittingly, is about love.

But today, this first Sunday, the traditional theme is hope.

It’s an odd theme for a Sunday that focuses on these texts about the end of the world, isn’t it? We’re told to be on watch at all times for signs that Jesus is coming for the last time, and that when it comes we will faint and shake. Hope? It sounds more like terror.

But maybe it doesn’t have to.

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

Listen to how Jesus tells us to look for the signs of his second coming. He doesn’t tell us to look for destruction and violence. He doesn’t tell us to look for pain and death. He tells us to look for signs of life. He tells us to look for the budding of fig trees. He tells us to look for the churning of the oceans. He tells us to look for him and his kingdom.

The reality, and this is a reality that I believe is born out by the story of the Resurrection, is that it is our darkest times that come right before the brightest days. I hear stories in my work a lot. Stories of people who have hit an absolute bottom in their lives. Maybe it was that they finally hit their bottoms with drugs or alcohol. Maybe they realized once and for all that they were in an abusive relationship. Maybe they found out that they had a medical diagnosis that they never expected. Their world had never seemed darker. It was the end of the world for them, or so they thought.

But then, something happened. They got sober. They walked away from the person who was hurting them. They found out they could not only live with their illness, but they could thrive with it. And, in much the same way, that’s how Jesus’ vision of his second coming is different too. We hear about the second coming of Jesus, and we might think of those fundamentalist churches that say it’s the end of the world. But maybe it’s not just the end of the world, but just the end of the world as we know it.

I thought about that yesterday at Liz’s memorial service here. None of us knows exactly what happens when we die. We know that the world as we know it ends, but we don’t know what happens next. And Liz was no exception. And yet, even in her final days, Liz did have hope. She didn’t know what came next, but she knew that she would be in God’s care, and she trusted in God’s love. At the end, that hope gave her peace.

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

The real signs are all around us. Some are as subtle as a new leaf on a fig tree. Others are as unexpected as a baby being born in a lowly manger. Or a person we love who feels peace in her final days. They are there, but they are not obvious unless we stop and we look. And that is what Advent is all about.

“Be alert at all times” Jesus tells us. Be alert for the end of the world as you know it, because you’ve never seen anything like what is to come. Be alert in all the glow of lights and the sound of carols for what they represent. Be alert for hope, and in hope. And when you are, and when those small signs are seen, that’s when you know that Christ is about to change the world. May God bless us in this Advent as we look with hope for Christ’s arrival. 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.