Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas Story

Our choir sang the song, “There has never been a night like this!”
It is true that this night is wonderful, beautiful, magical, because there has never been a story like the one we share tonight.
That talks of God’s glory, majesty, and love.
What is it about this story?
What is it that makes it so important to us?
Why do we write songs about it?
Why do we make up plays about it?
What draws us here tonight to hear it again?
We should admit from the start that this is a story in opposition to other stories.
Because even at the time of it’s telling there are other stories competing for attention.
Consider that nowhere is there any Roman historian who wrote about Jesus birth.
If I could put it in modern terms there were no news cameras there, no mention of it on Facebook or twitter.
It would seem on the surface of all things to be insignificant.
A baby is born, is generally not news, unless it is a baby from some famous person or royalty.
This baby is born in a unassuming way in a manger, in a little town of no real significance.
Jesus birth really does not mean anything.
But it does.
It means everything.
The story has gone on for two thousand years.
It is here tonight for us to marvel over and receive grace and hope from.

Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus was born in the middle of another story where an empire ruled the known world.
Jesus was born among a story of military might, and lots of petty despots.
Jesus story is counter to the popular narrative.
Jesus story tells us of poor shepherds, of angel singing “peace on earth”.
Jesus story tells us of good news for all people!
The Roman story told us there was peace because of military might.
The Roman story told us that it was good news if you were a Roman citizen.
The song that Phil sang at the start of worship tells us that Jesus was born among a troubled time.
That Jesus was born in a weary land, filled with people that wanted to kill him, filled with a counter story.
And we too live in a weary land.
I don’t know about you but I often feel weary with all the things going on in the world.
I feel weary because the story we often hear is about how horrible things are.
The story we hear is of exploitation of people and of the earth.
We hear a story of violence, hatred, and greed.

And perhaps that is why we love this story.
It is counter programming for us.
In our world that is torn apart by political dissension.
In our world where we are told that a strong military makes us safe, but we don’t feel any safer.
In world where there are nightly news reports of bad news.
We still need a story that tells us of good news and true peace.
 We need to know that in small places that no one is paying attention to, mystical, spiritual things are happening.

We need this story, and that is what keeps us going.
That is why we come to hear it.
Why we sing it.
Why we put on plays with cute kids.

I must say that I have been one for keeping the story straight.
That Luke’s telling of the story is different than Matthew’s for theological reasons.
But I am also aware that the story that most of us know is not only from Luke or Matthew it is from both.
Growing up before we could open our gifts we had to read the Christmas story.
And the story we read was a mash up of Luke and Matthew’s Gospel.
It had both shepherds and Wise men.
It had the stable and the manger.
It had angel’s appearing and the star.
I have come to see that as part of our need for this story.
It is not enough to know Luke or Matthew’s we want to understand this story from all the angels.
It is why we make up songs that are not 100% Biblically accurate, but that get at what the story is trying to tell us about our lives and what God was doing through the birth of Jesus.

Because what the birth of Jesus means is mind blowing, and quite frankly impossible to fully understand.
To think that the Lord of heaven and earth would become human is an amazing thought.
To think it would happen in this way is even more amazing.
If God was going to come to rule, why not come as a emperor?
In fact, that was the story of Rome that the Emperor was god on earth.
That people should worship the Emperor because he had conquered foreign lands.
The story we love does not make sense.
It is why many disparage it as a fairy tale.
In fact, one atheist group put up a billboard that read, “Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is to skip church. I am too old for Fairy Tales.”
Many people they can’t understand why God would come to earth in such a way.
If God were to come to earth it would be bigger, grandeur, better known.

But all of that misses the point.
The fact that it happened in this way is the point.
God is not interested in the same story as the Roman Empire.
God is interested in the story of a savior coming to show us another kingdom of heaven filled with love and peace.
God is interested in using people like the shepherds who are not very interesting.
God is interested in using stories of the ordinary becoming extraordinary.

This is the story of the union of heaven and earth through the love act of God.
It is the story that we love and we can’t get enough.
It is the story we keep telling.
It is the story we keep re-inventing through plays, books, and song to help us understand it better.

Tonight we hear that story again.
We remember God’s extraordinary, amazing love through shepherds, two poor people, a baby born in lowly circumstances.
And we remember that the story we often hear in the media, in political speeches, on television does not have to be the only story.
There is one greater, and with deeper meaning to us.
It is the story of God’s good news for all people.
It is the story of God coming down to earth to reside with God’s people.
 Let us leave here tonight as the Shepherds did after hearing this amazing unbelievable story, “glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen, as it has been told to us.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

My Hope for 2016!

I can’t wait for 2015 to be over.
For me it has been a really dreadful year.
Filled with people I love dying, getting sick, and just all round bad news.
There were many times this year when my wife and I would look at each other and just say, “This is just an awful year.”
This doesn’t even account for all the bad news that we have heard about in the world, the shootings, the terror, the be-headings, the racism, the xenophobia, and the unpredictable weather.
I can’t remember a year that was worse.
I am looking forward to putting it behind me and moving on.
Perhaps you have had years like that filled with more bad then good.
Perhaps you have had days or months like that.
But here is the thing I am hopeful.
Despite what has happened in my life and in the world I am still hopeful.
I am hopeful for 2016.

Let me say that I am not sure that 2016 will actually be any better.
I am not sure that there will be any less death and sickness.
I am not sure that we will have any better news about things happening in the world.
But I know that in 2016 God will be in my life, God will be active in the world.
I believe in faith that God through death is always birthing new life.
And that is what gives me hope.
I believe in faith that even in 2015 God was at work in my life, in the world through all the bad.
And that is the good news that we experience at Christmas, that God is not detached from our lives.
God is not unconcerned about our struggles, our pain, our heartache, but is somehow using them to birth new things into being.

Consider our Gospel story for this morning.
It is of two women who are both struggling.
They are caught up in a story bigger than themselves.
They don’t know exactly how everything goes together, but in faith they have decided to trust God, because of that trust they hope that this is all part of God’s bigger plan.
Elizabeth who is old and thought it was impossible to have a child is chosen by God to give birth to the prophet John to prepare the way.
If any of you have known people in your lives of people that couldn’t have a child but wanted one, you will know of the sadness that comes with that fact.
You will have seen the pain it causes.
For years Elizabeth lives with that pain and loss.
And even now she probably doesn’t know exactly why this happening.
But she might have been the only one who took Mary’s pregnancy with such joy.
She might have been the only person in Mary’s life who said that this pregnancy was a “blessing”.
That was is so great about Luke’s telling of Jesus’ birth is that among these difficult time and circumstances God is doing a new thing.
And that is what hope is for us.
It is the ability to believe that God is at work even in the most trying and difficult of times.
It is to be able to sing Mary’s song no matter what is going on in the world and in our lives.
As Mary sings, “God has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

This year I sat in a pew at the Lutheran church in East Long Meadow.
I sat next to my friend and put my arm around him as he cried because his wife at the age of 37 had died.
We sang hymns, listened to stories about her, shared in the Lord’s meal, and heard the good news of God.
I don’t know if I can say I was hopeful on that day.
I was sad.
Even now I am trying to give it some meaning, some purpose.
I don’t know if I can.
However, I can tell you that in faith I believe that God will bring life from that death.
That is where my hope lies.
Not in my ability to understand why certain things happen.
Not in my ability to find deeper meaning in the events of the day.
Not in some happy pronouncement about finding a silver lining.
Not in optimism.
My hope lies in the God of Israel who remembers his promises and is with his people forever.

This year I sat in the Lutheran Church in Warwick Rhode Island.
My friend’s sister had lost her son who was only 2 years old.
It was actually the second child she has lost.
I sat in the back this time.
We sang songs, heard the good news of God through Jesus Christ, and heard stories about the 2 year old boy.
I am not sure I felt hopeful on that day.
I am not sure I have words to convey how any of it made sense.
I know I cannot tell you why.
But in faith I am hopeful.
Not because it makes sense.
Not because I believe in some grand plan, but because the God of Israel has sent his Son into the world.
The God of Israel chose an unmarried poor teenager who lived in the backwater no good for nothing town of Nazareth to give birth to the savior of the world.
The God of Israel is my strength in such times.

I could go on and tell you other stories like this about my year.
I will spare you those other stories.
Maybe you had some like these yourself.
Maybe you are trying to make sense of it all.
This morning I am not trying to make sense of it all.
I am here to tell you the good news.
The same good news I heard at all the funerals I went to this year.
It is the good news that keeps me going.
The good news that has me looking forward to 2016.
The good news that gives me hope when everything else in this world is going so bad.
It is the good news that we hear today.
That the God of Israel, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the mighty one whose mercy endures forever that God sent us Jesus Christ so we might know of God’s love and mercy.
God sent Jesus Christ so that we have hope.

I realize that my sermon this morning could sound kind of like a downer.
I am telling you all the things that went so wrong in 2015.
However, that is not what I want you to leave her this morning thinking.
I don’t want you to leave here thinking, wow pastor had a really bad year and he must be really sad.
That is not my intention.
I want you to leave here with hope.
Not optimism.
For me optimism means that I am pointing to something and saying, “this will get better, because ….”
Hope as a person of faith says, I believe that God is at work, even when I can’t see it, or don’t know why, or am devastated with sadness.
Even when there are no answers, and please don’t try to give me any, I am not looking for that.
I am saying that my hope doesn’t come from what is going on around me, it comes from God.
It comes from promises that God has made to us.
Because I don’t know what kind of year I will have in 2016.
I don’t know what kind of year you will have in 2016.
I know that God will be there through it all, and that is what gives me hope.

It is the same hope that gave Mary and Elisabeth the strength to believe God, even though they were struggling to understand it all.
It is the same hope that gave Elizabeth the insight to call Mary’s pregnancy a blessing when no one else would.
And it is the same hope that this year will be the year when our mighty God will look with favor on the lowliness of his servants.
And that our spirits will rejoice in God our savior.

This morning I want all of you to leave here and have hope, not because life is great, but because you know the God of Israel has mercy and has made promises to do great things for us.
May we leave here singing Mary’s song of blessing, and knowing of God’s love and mercy shown to us in Jesus Christ.
May we have hope in 2016.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

What Then Should We Do? Love!

“What then should we do?”
This is a good question.
It is one that I ponder a lot recently, in the face of what we are dealing with in our world.
What should we do?
In the face of hatred from radical terrorism, what should we do?
When schools are no longer safe for our children but places that are shot up by people with guns, what then should we do?
When churches are not safe because someone with a gun can kill people at a prayer meeting, what then should we do?
When we as a nation cannot agree on anything because we are so divided from one another, what then should we do?
I was reading this week an article from the pew research center on how we are divided this is what pew had to say about it, “What is clearer is that Americans are experiencing more affective polarization — that is, regardless of where their views are moving, liberals increasingly dislike conservatives, and conservatives increasingly dislike liberals.”
We don’t like each other, no wonder we cannot talk to one another to solve the problems we face.
What should we do?

The people in today’s Gospel had gone into the wilderness because they had heard that something was happening.
That someone was preaching and offering something new.
They went because life was difficult and they needed answers.
What should we do?
I am struck this morning with how simple John’s answers are.
If you have two coats give one away.
If you have more than you need share with people who don’t have enough, If you are a soldier, politician, religious leader, tax collector then simply do your job.
Don’t steal from people, be honest.
It seems too simple.
If you hear me preach on other Sunday’s you know that we talk about how hard and complicated it is to follow Jesus.
Loving your enemies is not easy.
Being peaceful when you feel threatened is not easy.
But this morning I want us to see that often it is easier than we think.
Loving people can be as easy as sharing what extra we have.
The problem is us.
We make it complicated don’t we.
We only want to give our extra coat to people that are “worthy”.
We only want to give it away if they are truly grateful for what we have done.
We only want to give it to someone who will use it the way we would.
This is the problem for us.
Giving is conditional.
And God asks us to give unconditionally.
God asks us to give without thinking of what we get out of it.

But it is so much simpler than we make it.
We all have more than we need.
We all have extra to share.
And all that God requires of us is to share it.
To reflect God’s love by giving to others out of the abundance that God has given us.

The good news is that I see this all the time from people.
All the time I see people who have more than they need share and give away things to others.
All the time I see people of faith give.
In my life I have been blessed to know many people who are generous towards others.
In fact, I believe that the wide majority of people want to help other people.
They want to give, and they do.
So the good news is that in this world that we live in there is lots of love.
There are lots of acts of love.
And when I see those acts I believe that they come from God.
I believe that those acts far outweigh the acts of hatred and violence.
Hatred and violence make the evening news.
And maybe it should.
Tragedies need to be shared and mourned over.
But I will not let that overshadow the good in the world.
I will not let the acts of love that go unnoticed and unreported be lost in the shuffle.
Because those are the acts that really matter.

I am surprised by how much people get worked up over the latest event of the day.
Depending on one’s political view people get worked up when Donald Trump says something, or President Obama says something.
If it is a shooting people who like guns get worked up that others are questioning gun laws, and if you don’t like guns there is lots of gnashing of teeth.
I don’t want to underplay the seriousness of the issues that we face.
I don’t want to say that the tragedies of life are not bad and don’t matter, because they are really bad and do matter.
But in this season of Advent as we wait for God to come down in love through Jesus Christ.
As we prepare for God to come in love.
As we hear John the Baptist encourages us to be ready for God to come.
We can prepare by seeing the acts of love that are all around us, all the time.
See the acts of kindness that are done without notice.

I heard this story this week about this Lutheran couple.
They have made lots of money in their life.
They were walking down the street one day and encountered a homeless man.
They stopped to talk to him to see what they could do to help.
After talking to him they take him to a nearby hotel and pay for him to stay there for 6 months.
It turns out that he was a Veteran.
So they begin a long process to get this man the help he needs.
And eventually they get him the services he is entitled to, a job and a place to live.
You would have never heard that story on the evening news.
They did it quietly without fan fare.
They did it because they had more than they needed and wanted to share it with another person in need.
They did it out of love.
Love that the received from God.
That homeless man changed their life, and they changed his, because of love.

Now this story is an exceptional story.
And maybe most of us don’t have that kind of extra money to help someone.
But we all can help others in some small way.
We can go about our lives doing our jobs with honesty and integrity.
We can show love to everyone around us.
And that is how we beat back the tide of evil in the world.
That is how we get up every day and go on believing in goodness.
That is how we bear good fruit for God.
We don’t get caught up in the hype.
We refuse to be scared and afraid of our neighbors.
We give thanks that we have more than we need, and we share what extra we have with those around us.
We share acts of love.
Love is what we do in this world.
It is what God made us for, what Jesus calls us to, and where the Holy Spirit leads us towards.

It is not too complicated, unless we want to make it that way.
Care for each other.
Do the job God has called us to with honesty and integrity.
Share what we have.
Spread God’s love.
That is what we should do.   Amen