Questioning Advent: Day 24 – Christmas Eve

603196_10151146235676787_1936348159_nToday at the family service I asked all the children who were here to come up for the children’s sermon before this homily. And standing here on the chancel, I asked them to help me remember the Christmas story.

And they stood here, fresh from their performances as angels with homemade wings and shepherds in bathrobes, and they told us the Christmas story. They told us about how Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem, and they looked for a place to stay, but there was no room in the inn. And they told us about how that baby was born in a manger instead, and how the angels and the shepherds came to glorify that child. All of that happened 2,000 years ago, but they can tell that story by heart, just as well as any Christmas eve preacher ever could.

They can tell that story, because someone told that story to them. And we can tell that story, because someone told that story to us. And someone told us that story, because someone, somewhere told it to them. It is a story that, though written down in this holy book, has its real power from being passed from person to person, generation after generation, Christmas after Christmas.

Where did you hear the story first? Was it at church? Was it from a parent or grandparents? Was it from Linus at the end of a Charlie Brown Christmas? Wherever it was, you learned that story. And there’s something about that story that has brought you here tonight, to hear it, to tell it, to sing it, and to celebrate it once again.

This December I’ve been thinking about the Christmas story a lot. I’ve been trying to remember how I first learned the story, and, really, I don’t know. My guess is that it wasn’t just one telling or one moment, but that slowly, year after year, I learned what Christmas was all about by watching the people around me show me what Christmas was all about.

More than any other time of year, at our best, we become joyful people, hopeful people, loving people, peaceful people. We treat others a little better. We smile a little more readily. And we put lights on our houses and send out Christmas cards because we want to share that joy with others.

But this year, maybe like many of you, I noticed something interesting. Certain talking heads on television are telling us that there is a “war on Christmas”. To hear them tell it, Christmas is undergoing a full-blown, devastating attack on every front. And as I’ve listened to people argue about whether the cashier at Target should be saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”, I’ve felt a little sad. Because in a season where we should be focused on the joy that Christ brings to us, we seem to be fixated on the idea that we need to defend Christmas.

I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think Christmas needs defending. At least, I don’t think it needs defending against any outside influence. Because, I really believe that if there is a war on Christmas, it doesn’t happen out there somewhere. Rather, it happens in here. In our hearts. And it’s not just in December. It’s year round.

I’ll tell you why. You might not know it, but though it is December, the new year is just getting started. That’s because while most of us turn over our calendar on January 1st, the church year starts instead on the first Sunday of Advent. That was back on December 1st this year. And on that day we start to prepare ourselves for Christmas. And just four weeks later, Christmas comes. And if you’re just looking at the calendar, you may think that means the year is almost done. But for Christians, it means the year is just beginning.

The birth of Christ is just the start of the story. It’s just the beginning of an incredible journey that lasts the entire year through. It’s the jumping off point. And all the things we feel in Christmas, the joy and hope and peace and love, aren’t supposed to slowly fade throughout the spring, and pop back up next December. They are supposed to grow and become more powerful throughout the year. This…this is just the start.

And if on December 26th this feeling that you have in your heart is gone, then, yes, that war on Christmas was successful. Not the culture war that people talk about out there, but the struggle between choosing to live into the Christmas story that we all know not just a few weeks a year, but every day.

What would it mean to tell that Christmas story every day? I’m not talking about with words. I’m talking about telling it with the way that we act, telling it with how we treat others, telling it with the joy that we give back to the world. What would it mean to not walk through life angry or stressed or fearful because things are changing, but instead filled with grace, filled with love, filled with hope?

I believe that’s possible. I believe that God makes that possible. And I believe that God wants that for us. I believe that because I believe the story of Christmas is tells us that. When humanity had wandered so far away from love and light and grace, God didn’t just send us a message from afar. God became one of us. And Christ taught us how to treat one another, not so much through words, but through actions.

And I think that’s how Christ wants us to tell the Christmas story now. Not by preaching it, not by  arguing over who is giving us what holiday greeting, but by living it. By telling the world by our actions what it means that we are Christmas people.

Tonight in Phoenix, on city streets, another UCC pastor I know is trying to tell the world this Christmas story. This Christmas he is preaching no so much by words, but by actions. He is bringing gifts of shoes and socks and soap and more to homeless and at risk youth who have been kicked out by their families. For many of them, he is the first adult that they’ve ever been able to trust. And through that trust, he is telling them the Christmas story.

Tonight in Afghanistan, as troops come in from patrols, military chaplains are serving them coffee and a little bit of holiday cheer while they are so far from home. And there, in the most unlikely of places, through their hospitality and willingness to listen, they are telling the Christmas story.

And tonight, in a small mountain town in Vermont, a sanctuary full of people are preparing to go back out into the cold night, after hearing the Christmas story, and make a decision about how to tell that story to the world for the next year.

There’s a Christmas carol that you might know. It’s called “Go tell it on the mountain”. It’s appropriate for a place surrounded by mountains, I think. The words are “go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere, go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.”

I love that carol. And I love the idea of going and telling this story. Go tell it on Mt. Snow. Go tell it at the top of Haystack. Go tell it on each one of the Green Mountains. But don’t stop there. Go and tell it in your homes. Go and tell it in your hometowns. Go and tell it in the highways and byways and everywhere you can think of. Go and tell it…Jesus Christ has been born in a manger, and that birth has changed everything for you. Go and tell the Christmas story all year round.

You don’t have to use words to tell it. In fact, it’s probably even better if you don’t. Tell it with you life. Tell it with your actions. But go, and tell it…

Questioning Advent: Day 18 – Open It

from the United Church of Christ

from the United Church of Christ

We’ve been finishing our Christmas shopping here in Vermont. We try to buy local for as much of it as possible, but there are a few items that you just can’t get around here. For those, we went online. Which means that for the past few days the UPS truck has been sliding its way up our icy road to bring us a box or two.

I should say that most of the gifts aren’t a surprise. We each come up with a short list of things we might want, and we stick to that. But we each usually try to surprise the other with a little something too. Which is why when Heidi texted me from the house yesterday to say a strange box was at the door and she thought it had been mistakenly delivered to us instead of the neighbors I hurriedly texted back, “DON’T OPEN IT!”

This time of year it can feel like the world outside the church is full of gifts and the inside the doors of the church we are screaming, “don’t open it!” In Advent we are quick to remind others that technically the Christmas is not here yet, and that we need to wait. And, though I’m a diehard believer in observing Advent, sometimes it must feel like the world is offering carols and lights and parties and the church is only offering waiting.

And none of us like to wait. We don’t like waiting in grocery store lines. We don’t like waiting in traffic. We don’t like waiting for admissions letters or test results or anything else. So why do we wait for joy in the church?

My mom had a rule. We were allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve. The idea was that we had been waiting a long time, and though the big show was Christmas morning, it was okay to celebrate a little ahead of time. And on the week following the third Sunday, we are called to celebrate a little bit too. This is the week we light that pink candle, that visual reminder of both the purple candles of Advent and the white of Christmas, and talk about joy. And the thing about that is that we don’t have to wait until Christmas Eve, or even Christmas day, to mean it. It may be Advent, but we know what is coming. We know that God is about to bring joy into this world. So, maybe it’s okay for us to practice being joyful?

Sometimes Christians talk a lot about joy, but we don’t really seem all that joyful. When I look around during the Christmas season I see a lot of that. We either have admonitions to not celebrate yet, or we have Christian leaders on news channels using joyless phrases like “the war on Christmas”. But what would it look like if instead of either holding our joy to ourselves, or waging all out war with others, we stopped waiting to share that joy?

What if instead we looked at the world and said, “Go ahead…open it. Open one. Let it be a reminder of what’s about to happen. Because, it’s going to be good?” I believe we can do that. I believe we should do that. And I believe there are more than enough gifts to go around from now until Christmas morning.

Question: If you could give one spiritual gift of joy to someone else between now and Christmas, who would it be and how would you do it?

Prayer: Joyfully, O God, we truly do adore you. Help us to live out that joy together this time of year. Make us witnesses to the joy that Christ brings. And strengthen us to speak joyful words to a world in need of more. Let joy be our gift to the world, and help us to give it with only these words: Open it. Amen.

Journey Through Advent, Day Four

usps_site_2012_christmas_2The other day I went to the post office to buy a lot of stamps. It’s the time of year when we send out a lot of cards, so I wanted to be sure we had the right stamps for each one. For our religious friends receiving a Christmas card, I bought the religious holiday stamps with the Holy Family on them. For our friends who celebrate Christmas, but only because of the secular connotations, I bought the Santa stamps. And for our friends receiving Hannukah cards, I bought Hannukah stamps.
I left the post office with three books of stamps and with no fear whatsoever that Christmas was under attack. This time of year the “war on Christmas” rhetoric heats up, and we hear that rallying cry of the concerned: “Keep Christ in Christmas!” And Christmas is about Christ to me. It’s a holy and beautiful time of year, and I feel my spiritual life deepen tremendously every December. But, my spiritual life does not dictate the spiritual lives of others. Each person celebrating Christmas takes their own path, and finds their own meaning. I may not agree, but I don’t begrudge them or try to make their season less joyous.
Likewise, as I affix Hannukah stamps onto cards, I wonder why I’ve never heard any of my Jewish friends decry a cultural “war on Hannukah”. Despite the fact that Jewish kids grow up having their holiday pushed to the back of public consciousness, no one is yelling about it on Fox News. That’s because the real issue here isn’t that there is a “war on Christmas”. The real issue is that we are starting to understand that this is a country with many faiths and belief systems, and we are starting to respect other traditions as well.
So what does that change spiritually for those of us Christians who are counting the days of Advent, and waiting for Christ? Really, not much. Our journey continues, and our joy can be multiplied by those who surround us, regardless of whether they believe as we do or not. But what can change is the way in which we choose to respond to the diversity of God’s people.
In the Gospel when Christ is arrested, Peter draws his sword and strikes the ear of the slave of the high priest who was doing the arresting. Surely, if there ever was a war on Christ, this was the time. But instead, Christ tells Peter not to fight. In the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar”, Jesus sings this line: “Why are you obsessed with fighting? Stick to fishing from now on.”
If Christians spend each Advent fighting against what they perceive to be an “attack” on Jesus, then we have missed the point, and we will never be able to do the sort of metaphorical “fishing” Christ was talking about. No one will ever be attracted to a religion that builds its faith on false calls of persecution and angry battles of words. But they just may be drawn to the sort of faith that calls us to something better, and that directs our attention to the hope that will change the world for everyone, and not just those who believe as we do. The Advent journey we are on leads only to hope, only to light, and only to a life of compassion. If what you’re finding is something different, you may not be on the road to Christmas after all.