Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Joy to The World!

I don’t know about all of you but I could use some Good News of Great joy these days.
It seems we keep moving from one calamity to the next.
Each one of them is more heartbreaking than the last one.
After the shooting in Newtown Connecticut some people asked me, “How was it possible to have Christmas joy this year?”
The thought of parents sitting at home with unopened gifts, they had planned to give to children no longer there, was just too heart wrenching to imagine.
It is harder than ever to imagine Good News let alone to imagine this Christmas being filled with Joy.
In fact, the people of Newtown are not the only ones who are experiencing difficult times.
Plenty of people have no apparent reason to be happy this season.
People who are alone, people experiencing deaths, people losing their homes, people losing jobs, people experiencing homelessness, people suffering depression are all suffering this Christmas.
Despite all of this I would like for us to hear the angels this evening.
I would like for us to hear them bring us good news of great Joy.
Because I believe it is possible in all circumstances to know the joy of Christmas.
The problem is the way we think of joy.
We confuse joy with happiness.
Joy is not the same thing as happiness.

Happiness is something we experience from external sources.
If we win the lottery we might be happy.
Happiness is based on luck or good fortune and only last a little while.
Joy on the other hand comes from an inward source.
Joy comes from contentment with yourself and the world around you.
Joy is not about what happens but about how your soul lights up anyway.
We feel joy at weddings, at the birth of children, when seeing someone we love after being apart for a long time, when we give the perfect gift.
Joy comes from deep in our souls.

The angels on that first Christmas night do not proclaim that the shepherds will be happy, only that they will be joyful at what they find in the manager.
The Christ child will light up their insides.
Think about it.
What they go to see in Bethlehem is actually very ordinary.
The birth of a baby, those happen every day.
In fact, today 490,000 babies will have been born somewhere on this planet.
Not only is this just the birth of a baby, but one not worthy of note by the world.
It is not like Prince William and Kate are having a baby.
It is just some ordinary people, unable to get a room, having a child in a manger.
What makes this birth different is that it was sent here for us.
It is sent to give us joy and to light up our insides, and awaken in us something deep in our souls.

Yes even among the tragedies of life, even among sadness and despair we can still proclaim Good News and great joy for all people.
We can do it not because life is all rainbows and gumdrops.
Not because everything is ok with the world.
We are not naive people, but we are people of faith.
And because of that blessing we believe in our souls the joy of Christmas.

You see for us good news comes before the joy.
And that good news is that God has loved us all enough to not remain distant from us.
God has not given up on the world.
These shepherds I am sure all had struggles in their lives.
They all struggled to pay bills, to teach their children, to get along at work.
They lived in some very difficult times filled with great violence, wars, famines, injustices.
And yet the angels still proclaim good news!
That was God’s news, not the world’s news.
And that is one of the essential reasons we can still have joy tonight even with heavy hearts.
Our joy comes from God, it comes from a message that breaks forth into the world and keeps us going.

After Thanksgiving I went to Starbucks and there on the wall was written; “The wait is over. Let the joy begin.”
Our wait is over too!
Jesus has come again to us this night.
We have proclaimed it together in sacred story and in glorious songs.
Tonight we sing even louder, “Joy to the world” because we know that the world needs to hear it.
“No more let sin and sorrow reign.”
Instead let us hear the good news given to all people.
“He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”

Perhaps our vision of what Christmas is also makes us lose sight of what it means to have joy.
If our image of Christmas is only kids and parents gathered around a tree on Christmas morning opening presents than indeed there is no joy this Christmas for many people who simply don’t fit into those easy categories.
But if our image of Christmas is of God coming to touch the earth with sweet songs of good news than Christmas will never let us down.
It will always be here for us, because God is always here for us.
And here is wherever we are.
If we are sad then God is here.
If we are alone then God is here.
If we are lost then God is here.
If we are struggling God is here.
If we are thankful God is here.
And that is what brings us joy deep in our souls.

Tonight I proclaim even louder and with even more confidence that indeed this night there is good news and great joy for all people.
May all of you have a Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Cheese Nips

The other day I was eating lunch with my son Charlie.
I reached over on to his plate and took a cheese nip off and ate it myself.
“Hey, that is my cheese nip!” he said.
I replied, “Excuse me. Did you get a job I don’t know about?
I believe I paid for those Cheese nips so they are really mine.”
To prove my point I started to eat more off his plate.
He looked at me and said, “Dad those aren’t your cheese nips they are God’s.”
Both Charlie and I learned a lesson that day.
The things we have don’t belong to us.
They are merely on loan from God.
We get to use them for God’s glory.
And yet we often act like we own them.
Like we deserve the things we have.

I know as a parent I get very concerned about my kids and how they are growing up and acting.
But the thing that I keep trying to remind myself is that they are not mine.
They really belong to God.
I just get to be their Dad for a finite time here on this part of their journey.
I get to be their stewards for this part of the trip.
I really didn’t make them, or form them I simply get to be part of this part of their journey’s.
As parent you are reminded of two things simultaneously.
One the one hand you realize that you have very little control over them.
They do things and say things that surprise and shock you all the time.
They do things all the time that make you think, “Where did they learn that?”
On the other hand you realize that you have been given a sacred trust to care and love them.

I wonder if that is how Mary and Elizabeth feel about their kids.
They are carrying these two lives inside them.
They give birth to them, they feed and nurture them.
And yet so much of who and what they are is already determined before they even come out of the womb.
We  know from Luke’s Gospel that Jesus would surprise and shock Mary.
As a teenage boy, he would stay behind to teach in the synagogue.
As a man, he would lead people, leave behind his home, and eventually suffer and die.
Today we celebrate Mary because of her acceptance of her role in the greater story.
Can we too see ourselves as part of that greater story?
Are we able to see that so much of what God is going to do is out of our control?
And yet we are given such an important role in what happens?
We all are given a sacred trust to play the part that God has called us to.

It is really so inconceivable because being responsible yet out of control at the same time don’t seem to go together do they.
But I think it is closer to the reality we live.
We act in this world and make a million decisions that have consequences and make a difference either for good or ill, and yet we know that sometimes things are simply out of our control.

I think this way about my giving to the church.
Every week I hand over this money.
But I don’t always see the fruits of it.
I don’t know all the ways that it will do good in my life, in the life of the community, in the life of others.
But I believe it matters that I give it.
It matters to me.
Because I believe it was never really mine to begin with.
It always belonged to God.
And one way for me to feel good about what I have is to share with others.
To share without conditions.
To just give.
And I also know that it does matter.
That someday that money will be worth more to me than I can possibly imagine.
Because it will be to God’s glory and not mine.

I do so many other things for my glory.
I do lots of things because I think I deserve it, or because I feel I earned it.
Most commercials on television that are trying to get you to buy something are about how you should buy it because you deserve it, or because you earn it.
“Get the credit you deserve.”
“Get the home you deserve.”
“Get the body you deserve.”
“Get the good night’s sleep you deserve.”
I remember that old McDonald’s slogan, “You deserve a break today.”
No wonder the Church’s teaching about money is so foreign to so many people, because it is out of the norm of what we are told.
We as people of faith say that we don’t deserve anything.
That God out of God’s graciousness gives us life and all that is in it.

Think about Mary and Elizabeth they are not chosen for their worthiness.
Elizabeth was an old woman thought to be barren.
She had given up on ever having children.
John’s birth is so inconceivable that his own father doesn’t believe it to be true.
Mary is no one of any significance.
A teenage peasant girl, from some crumby backwater town, set to be married to a carpenter also a man of no significance.
And yet both woman are chosen because they signify the type of people God wants to draw in and use.
They don’t deserve it, but God chooses them anyway.

And in some way my giving is a small reminder to me each week that I have been given my part to play by God too.
That God has called me to a life where I am not measuring my life by what I have but by what I can give away.
It is a reminder to me that I don’t deserve it, but I have been given the blessing and privilege of having it to share.

We call today commitment Sunday because we will right down on this card our financial commitment to the Church.

I wonder what Mary, if she was hear, what would she write down on her card?
And I wonder if any of would be willing to take on the challenges that she took on.
Think about it.
Be the earthly mother to Son of God, love care for and nurture him to adulthood, then watch him leave you at home and go off to change the world, only to see him be rejected and killed.
That is commitment.

In a bacon-and-egg breakfast, what's the difference between the Chicken and the Pig?
The Chicken is involved, but the Pig is committed!
That is the type of commitment God asks of us our whole life.
God puts us in charge of certain things and asks us to take care of it.
Here is x amount of money each month, you need to put a roof over your head, food on your table, gas in your car, nurture yourself, and care for your neighbors in need.
That is a lot of responsibility.
I remember as a kid my parents always telling me how much responsibility it was to be an adult.
I didn’t believe them.
It is a huge commitment.
And what God asks us of is even more because God asks us to commit not to our agenda, but that of God and our neighbors.
Compared to the bigger commitments we are called giving a portion God’s money to the church doesn’t seem that big a deal.

Our larger commitment is to carry God into the world.
It is to birth new things into God’s kingdom.
To sing Mary’s song:
God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
He has lifted up the lowly;
Has filled the hungry with good things.

The God that Mary sings about, the God we pray to daily, worship weekly, the God who gives us talents and passions, the God who gives us all we have,  is a God worth being committed to.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Gifts We Are Given.

It was already a tough week.
On Wednesday I was at my leadership class and we were talking about criminal justice.
We spent the morning in a court room and the afternoon in jail.
We were told about people doing bad things.
It was a long tough day, because it was a reminder that this world is filled with some very dark places.
And then Friday I heard about the tragedy in Connecticut.
What happened on Friday at the school in Newtown Connecticut was jarring to say the least.
It stopped me in my tracks as I am sure it did all of you.
I had planned on preaching about giving God of our gifts as part of our stewardship series.
At first I thought I should just scrap my sermon all together and preach about what happened.
Then I thought I would just add a special section at the beginning of my sermon to say something about the tragedy.
But then I realized that I don’t know if I have the words today that would answer all of your questions.
All I have is what all of you have grief, anger, and confusion.

But then I thought about it some more.
Today we are talking about giving our gifts to God.
We see in tragedies like this what happens when we fail to see our gifts, when we fail to see others gifts, and when we fail to use our gifts.
We also see what happens when others use their gifts to do what they have been called by God to do.

You see we all know what the ideal is.
We all know that God made each and every one of us, and gave us talents and passions that are used for making the world go.
This is a hard truth to hold onto because it means believing that God made Adam Lanza.
It is hard to believe because it means believing that God had given him gifts.
I read some reports that said that Adam Lanza was a very smart kid.
And now that is wasted.
He might have had gifts that would have cured a disease or helped humankind in ways we have not yet thought of.
And all we are left with is the question, why?
Why would Adam Lanza do such a horrible thing?
I don’t know for sure.

What I do know is that we can’t overlook our gifts, or the gifts of others.
We have to embrace them and celebrate them.
One of my favorite quotes is from Henry Ward Beacher, “God asks no one whether they will accept life. That is not the choice. You must take it. The only question is how.”
How will we use the gifts that God has given us to build up others, and show our love to the world?
We are told in scripture that all these gifts that we have are given by God to build up the body of Christ.
The gifts we have been given are so we can care for our families, and serve our neighbors.
When we waste them or underutilize them we are throwing away the gift.

What if Mozart had refused to write songs?
What if Abraham Lincoln had refused to run for president?
What if MLK would have refused to join the bus boycott in Montgomery Alabama?
What if Ted Williams would have refused to try out for little league baseball?
We all would have been poorer for it.
If we fail to see our gifts, to name them, and then to put them into action, we are robbing each other of blessings that God wants to give.
And it doesn’t even have to be on that grand a stage.

What about the person who fixes our cars, cuts our hair, mows our lawn, protects our streets, fights our fires, bags our groceries, grows our food, teaches our children, makes our clothes, and loans us money.
All of the things that are done in our community are done for the glory of God.
It is when we are all using our gifts for the common good that we live in harmony and peace.
What disrupts that is when someone forgets that they were made by God, and that God loved them enough to give them gifts meant to be shared.
When we feel left out of the process or undervalued that is where the trouble starts.

And it is no different in the Church.
I believe that God has sent us, and provided us all the gifts that we need for this ministry to share the good news, bind up the broken hearted, and help the poor.
I believe there will be new people that God sends us to help us grow.
There is always plenty of work to be done for the kingdom of God.

This morning Luke does something unique with his Gospel.
He has John the Baptists give advice to the crowd about what they should be doing.
John is still the fire brand preacher calling people to account for what they have done.
But Luke, in typical fashion, makes John’s words have even more meaning because he talks in practical terms.
John tells us to use what God has given to help others.
If you have two coats give one away, if you have more food than you need share with your neighbor.
It should be mentioned some of the people John is talking about are despised by most people in his community.
Most people didn’t like tax collectors because most of them stole money from them.
Most people didn’t like Roman soldiers because they carried out the orders of unjust political system.
But what John doesn’t say is stop being a solider or a tax collector.
What he says is be a better one.
Use the gifts God has given to be just and help your neighbor.

I am thinking this morning of the teachers who did what they were trained to do that Friday morning in Connecticut.
The teachers who locked the doors and hid with the children trying to comfort them and let them know it would be alright even though they were not sure.
Principal Dawn Hochsprung and school psychologist Mary Sherlach, both among those killed, were said to have run toward the gunfire as it broke out, with Hochsprung lunging at the gunman, according to town officials.

"A lot of children are alive today because of actions the teachers took," School Superintendent Janet Robinson told NBC's TODAY show on Saturday.
Teachers who were doing what God put them here to do protect and care about the well being of children even before their own well being.

I know a lot of us hug our children a little more tightly these past couple of days.
I know for me this once again put my life in proper perspective about what truly matters.
And if anything good can come from this perhaps it is that we can all see our lives as more important than we thought.
Perhaps we will think of ways to use our God given gifts to be better, and do better.
We will think of ways to make our world more just, and peaceful.
There is no doubt that we can’t stop bad things from happening.
We can’t stop people with bad intentions from doing what they will do.
What we can do is hold on to each other a little tighter.
We can have faith that God is closer to us than we think or know.
This is what Christmas is about that God dwells among us.
God comes into the sinful world of human beings.
God experiences firsthand our pain.
Jesus weeps over death.
Jesus gets angry over violence that kills.
In mercy reaches out to those who feel betrayed and left out.
Because of Jesus we know that we never suffer alone.
God is always drawing near to our pain.
Most importantly today we need to hear again Jesus tell us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it
Advent is a reminder that God is here, God is coming, and that the light breaks into the darkness of our lives.
And it is a reminder to us that we still grown for God to make it stop.

What is the gift that you have been given?
How do you use them for the building up of your neighbor?
Today that is a question is closer to our lips than ever.
Because when things like the tragedy in Connecticut happen we pray a little more, hug our loved ones tighter, and desire God to stop our pain.

Even with this tragedy Christmas is still coming, Jesus is still here.
God doesn’t ask us if we want the gift, that is not the choice, the only choice is how we will use it.
How will you?