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.

“Different Kind of Business, Different Kind of Owner” – Sermon for Sept. 18, 2011

Like many of you, I’ve had reason to talk to FEMA this past week. We were concerned about a few very minor things with the church building, and we wanted to be on the safe side, so we registered. One step in the registration was having to sit at that table, and call in to a call center somewhere to talk to an agent. When I got her on the phone, the conversation went something like this:

Her: Are you the business owner?
Me: No. I’m the pastor.
Her: Well, who owns the business?
Me: Well, we’re a church, so not a business, so no one owns us.
Her: (Increasingly confused.) I’m going to need a business owner’s name.

I was trying to be respectful of the fact that these people are working very hard to help us in a natural disaster, and are doing a good job. So, even though there were so many possible snappy responses about who owned the church, I just explained once again that there was no “owner” of the business. The matter was finally settled when it was accepted that while I was not the “owner”, I was the “responsible party”, and that was good enough.

The part of me that was seeing some humor in all of this, though, really wanted to answer her “owner” question with something like, “well, I guess that would be God. Or, you could put in Jesus Christ, which in the computer might look something like Christ, Jesus. And no, I don’t have his taxpayer ID number either.” In the end I decided not to subject her to either a theological commentary or my humor.

But, I was thinking about that encounter a little when I read this week’s Gospel passage. Jesus tells a parable about a business owner. He talks about the owner of a vineyard who hires workers for the day. In the early morning he goes out and finds people who will work and agrees to pay them a living wage. They go out to the fields and start to work.

Around nine he goes to the square and finds more people, and this time he says “I will pay you what is right”. They go out to the fields too. He does this again at noon, and then at three. And at five he goes out and finds people who haven’t been hired yet, and he hires them and sends them to the fields.

Now, when it comes time for everyone to be paid, he starts with the ones who came at 5pm. And they get a full day’s wages. Now, can you imagine being those folks who were hired at 9am? The people who were hired eight hours later got a full day’s wage. They must have been waiting thinking, “If they got paid for the full day, we are surely going to get even more!”

Except they don’t. They get the full day’s wage that they agreed on earlier in the day. And they grumble about how unfair it is. You get the same pay whether you worked one hour or nine, hard hours.

The owner of the vineyard answers, “I did you no wrong. I paid you for the day. Are you angry because I was generous and gave what was mine to give to the others? The last shall be first. And the first shall be last.”

If you’re like me, you read this parable and you feel a little uneasy. It doesn’t seem right that the ones who came at 5pm get paid as much as the ones at 9am. It’s not what we’re taught our whole lives. It’s not fair. That vineyard owner had it all wrong.

Except we know that just as in all Jesus’ parables the main character, the business owner, really represents God. And the workers in the vineyard, whether they came at daybreak or 5pm, really represent us. And we know that Jesus is trying to teach us all something about God, and one another.

We like to believe that we will be rewarded, that we can make sure everything will turn out okay, if we just work hard enough. It’s what we have heard since we were in grade school. If we worked hard enough, we could do anything we wanted. And so many of us burn ourselves out, run ourselves into the ground, in order to try to create the future we want.

Now, I don’t fault hard work. I often work long days, and have a hard time disconnecting when I should. I check email when I’m out with friends, I pick up the phone on my day off, I have an inability to shut off. I am, like many of you, a bit of a workaholic.

But, like many of you, I sometimes find that despite my best laid plans, despite my hard work, in the end things don’t always go exactly my way. And sometimes that feels really unfair. Especially when we see someone else get something that we feel like they haven’t earned.

I think I would have been grumbling right along with those early workers that day. What’s the sense of working hard if other people get what they don’t deserve?

And then I think about it more. And I remember that the vineyard owner is God. And I remember that none of us gets what we deserve. Instead, we get a whole lot better.

Throughout the history of our faith, there have been those who have said you can gain God’s love through work. Do the right things, pray the right way, make the right sacrifices, and you can find salvation. It has come up again and again in the course of Christian history.

And yet, that’s not the point of the Christian life. That’s not the point of God’s grace. We don’t do what we do as Christians to earn God’s love. We do what we do because we already have God’s grace, and we are so filled with gratitude for that grace that we can’t help but glorify God through our actions.

We don’t donate to the food pantry to get to heaven. We donate because our souls were hungry for God and we were fed. We don’t build a house with Habitat for Humanity because we fear eternal damnation. We build a house because in God’s kingdom there are many houses, and we are welcome in them all. We don’t hand out water to volunteers to earn God’s love. We hand out water because Christ himself has given us living water.

We do all these things not because we were the workers waiting at the vineyard at sunrise. We do these things because we were the ones God went out and found at 5pm, and we were chosen to go into the vineyards anyways. And we were not treated fairly. We were treated better than fairly. We were treated with grace.

The biggest relief in my life came when I realized I didn’t have to earn God’s love. The biggest relief came when I realized I already had it, that it was inside of me, and that nothing I could do would separate me from it. And that relief, that freedom from the fear of a God who I could never be good enough to be loved by, turned from relief to joy. And from that joy came gratitude.

I still work a lot. It’s a growing edge. But now I don’t do it to earn God’s love. I do it as a response to God’s love. I do it as a kind of paying forward of what has already been given to me. I do it because maybe, if I meet the right person on the right day, someone else will look through what I do, and see what God has done in me, and in you, and in all of us.

There is a phrase that many of us have heard: there but for the grace of God go I. That phrase used to upset me. I used to look at whatever unfortunate person was being pointed out and try to come up with some reason in my mind why what happened to them would never happen to me. That works for a while. Until it doesn’t. And then you find that you are the one who is in need of grace. It’s a humbling experience.

But, in many ways, it can also be a freeing one. It can be freeing to know that in the end, God’s grace is not dependent on us. It’s only dependent on a God who loved us first. You look around at your co-workers in the vineyard, and you realize that that grace is not yours to withhold. And that is often the most powerful example of God’s grace in you. When God’s grace is so great that in your joy you feel compelled to do things that share that grace with others, you know that love has won..

And when you really feel that grace for the first time, when you really believe it, you are free. You are free from fear. You are free from worry. You are free from the illusion that you are always in control. And you are free in another way too. You are free to serve. You are free to give. You are free to love. You are free to labor in a vineyard where all are paid not according to the work they do, but according to what God does. You’ll never find another business owner who will pay you like that.

Now if I could have just written that all in on the forms I had to fill out this week, maybe I could have answered that question I was asked. Who owns this business? Not me, and not you, and not any of us. This is God’s. And it’s not like any business we’ve ever seen before. Indeed, this is the best place we will ever work. Amen.

Noah’s Dove and the Olive Leaf – Sermon for September 4, 2011

Genesis 8:6-12

6 After forty days Noah opened a window he had made in the ark 7 and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. 8 Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. 9 But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark.10 He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. 11 When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. 12 He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.

Last Saturday night the leaders of both churches and I made the decision to cancel church the next morning. We weren’t sure whether anything would come out of the weather reports we were hearing, but we thought it was better to be safe than sorry.

Last Sunday morning, when we would have been in church, like many of you I watched the river rise in my front yard, praying it wouldn’t come any closer. Around the time church would have been letting out, the Deerfield River spilled over its banks and changed so much about this place we love.

Last Sunday night I stood in my clergy collar in the middle of the devastation in Wilmington and talked to some people who had been on vacation. We shook our heads in disbelief and one said, “This is God showing us what he can do.”

I’ve never understood that line of thought. My first call out of seminary was as a chaplain at a pediatric hospital in Atlanta. I served in the emergency room and unfortunately saw many children brought in with devastating injuries. As I would sit with the parents, I would hear the comments from well-meaning friends and staff who didn’t know what else to say:

“God meant this for a reason. God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. God has a plan.”

It wasn’t the time or place, but I always wanted to challenge them:

“God willed someone who had a few drinks to many to get behind the wheel? God told someone to beat this child? God made this kid find his father’s gun that hadn’t been locked up?”

In the wake of the floods, I hear the same sort of quick theological judgements. It’s not a huge surprise. People want to make sense out of something so horrific that it takes our breath away.

But I remind myself that God does not cause natural disasters to punish us any more than God wills a child to be hit by a drunk driver. God does not flood river banks to show us God’s strength. God does not wreak devastation because “God has a plan” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle”. God doesn’t kill people to teach us a lesson.

But I also believe this. No matter what happens, God can work through it to create something good.

We read a passage from Genesis this morning. It’s the story of Noah and the flood, and God’s promise. After the waters from the flood receded, Noah sent a dove out in order to find out whether it was safe again.

The first time the bird came back, finding no safe place to land. For seven days it stayed with Noah.

Seven days. Seven days later he sent out another dove. And the dove found that the world was not back to normal yet. But it was starting to be. And it plucked an olive leaf from a tree and it brought it back to Noah as a I sign of the hope that they could have in a world rebuilt.

Seven days. One week. One week ago we walked down into Wilmington, or East Dover, or Wardsboro to see what had happened, and we were like the dove who couldn’t its our feet down on solid ground. Our entire worlds have been changed.

One week later we come here to claim an olive leaf. We come to see God’s promise starting to come through once again. We look around and we see evidence of God’s grace working through this to create good. God did not send this flood, but God can work through even the worst of situations to transform them, and to transform us.

The olive leaf that the dove brought back was a sign of hope. And this week I have seen a lot of olive leaves. I have seen the grace of God at work in profound ways.

As the high school turned into an evacuation center, the lines between neighbors were crossed in the interest of working together. And time and again, someone who had lost so much came to me and asked who had it worse, and how they could help them. Many of you cleaned out friends’ stores, helped neighbors move, served meals at the shelter, handed out water at the church, stacked shelves at the food pantry, organized diaper delivery, and in so many other ways demonstrated that hope is real.

And the olive leaves, the symbols of hope that we claim a week later, they are not just here in the valley. They are all over. Within hours after the rains came, checks were on the way to the pastor’s discretionary funds of both churches from people across the country. Within days Church World Service, the organization we donated to last spring after the tsunamis in Japan, had sent disaster supplies up here to us.

Later in the week we heard that both churches had been sent funds from the national United Church of Christ so that we can help our neighbors in the coming months. You may remember that in the spring we took up a collection for the UCC’s storm relief fund. And now here we are, just a few months later, finding that what we gave is coming back to us. In addition, throughout the week I’ve received calls from numerous UCC churches throughout New England that wanted to know how to help us. This week I have been reminded more than ever that we are stronger because we do not stand alone. We are all interconnected, and when we think beyond our own needs, we find that we are the ones who are often strengthened the most.

But, as Christians we already knew that. Because as Christians we know that we do not live in isolation from one another, or from our Creator. We know that Christ did not choose one disciple. He chose many, and he taught them to serve not themselves, but one another. This week I saw so many people, both here and in places far away, living into the kind of community Christ wanted us to have. In the coming weeks and months, may we continue to do the same. Even when things look hard.

Two weeks ago I had coffee at Dot’s, walked down to some of your shops, and stopped to look at books at Bartleby’s. It was a warm summer’s day, and everything seemed perfect. Last week the buildings I’d been in were torn apart. They were the first things I saw when I walked into town. There was so much devastation. It took my breath away.

But, like you, I come here every Sunday because I believe in resurrection. I come here because I know someone who was subjected the worst that this world could do to him, who suffered alongside of us, and who the whole world thought had been destroyed.

Except he lived.

When I took that walk around Wilmington last week, I wasn’t in love with the buildings or the businesses. I was in love with the people, even with all of our imperfections. I was in love with who we were, and who we are, and who we will be.

And today I am grabbing hold of that olive leaf. That what made our community special a week ago was not what we had built, but who we were. We are a community that can rebuild, because even as the landscape has changed, who we are has not.

We come here because we believe in our hearts that resurrection is possible. I can’t tell you what that resurrection will look like yet, but I can tell you that God can work through us to make it good. Our hope is in a God who so long ago brought new life after the world was flooded. God still can, and God still will.

May God bless us all in the coming days, and in the coming months, and may God pour out a blessing on this whole Valley. Amen.