Unto Us, a Child Is Born

Good news from North Haven

Luke 1:39-45 NRSV

It is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and tomorrow is Christmas Eve. All of our waiting and expectation is almost over. We have gathered here this morning, and will gather here again tomorrow night to receive once again the long-expected baby Jesus.  Like Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, something inside of us is leaping for joy!

Our anticipation standsin sharp contrast to that first Christmas, when this baby was not received by everyone. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” in response to the good news. But not everyone thought of this birth as good news.

The shepherds were filled with fear. King Herod, despite all his soldiers guarding him at the Palace, was sore afraid as he saw this baby’s birth as a threat to his empire. Even Joseph, the man engaged to Mary, didn’t readily receive the baby. In the beginning he spent many a sleepless night questioning, “Who’s really the father of this baby?”

Jesus was conceived by a woman who was not married to anyone. We have given ugly names to such babies. Thankfully, I don’t here many children called the “b-word” anymore. It is such a sad name to describe a child, I find it inappropriate to say aloud from this pulpit. I do, however, hear the word, as I am certain Mary and Joseph heard the word, illegitimate, to describe such children.  And that, too, illegitimate, is a sad, ugly term for anybody, much less the very Son of God. Today, we also use other sad and ugly terms for children: “illegal,” “alien,” “abomination.”

In contrast to that very first Christmas where very few received this baby they called illegitimate, we will gather with the Church around the world to welcome and embrace this baby. With triumphant voices we will sing, “Come let us adore him!”

And there is a counter miracle occurring here. We are receiving the baby, but this baby is also receiving us. In the birth of Jesus, God came to us because we could not come to God. So, before we congratulate ourselves on our willing and eager reception of this baby, let us wonder at this baby’s reception of us.

Knowing that we cannot reach up to God, God reaches down to us.  God takes on our humanity so that we might assume some of God’s divinity. God came to show us that we are all children of God.  Think about that this morning.

You are a child of God. I am a child of God. We have divine value, sacred worth, a holy purpose.

We need to wonder at this reception, because we Christians have come to speak almost casually of this miracle when we say, “I am child of God.”

As someone who has been in the church for over fifty years now, and a minister for over thirty years, people often tell me that I should write a book.  A wonderful book of church stories filled with stories about you.

A Presbyterian minister from Northhaven, Minnesota did just that. In his book entitled, The Good News from Northhaven, Michael Lindval writes about his Presbyterian congregation.

It was his first Thanksgiving as pastor of the church. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving they were having an infant baptism. Dr. Angus McDonald II, (he sounds Presbyterian doesn’t he?) and his lovely wife, proudly presented their new son, Angus III, otherwise known as Skip, to be baptized.

When it was time for the baptism, Rev. Lindval turned to the congregation and asked what is traditionally asked in many churches that baptize infants. He addressed the congregation and asked: “Who stands with this child?”

Immediately, the grandparents, aunts and uncles and an assortment of relatives and friends, stood up and joined the parents at the front as they held the baby, presenting the baby for baptism.

When the service was over, after the congregation shook the minister’s hand upon exiting the church, Rev. Lindval, walked back through the sanctuary and noticed that one person had remained. He recognized her as someone who always sat on the back pew, closest to the back door. She was a social worker, he remembered. She seemed to be at a loss for words.

After an awkward silence, she commented on how lovely the baptism was, and then, fumbling for words, said to the pastor, “One of my clients, her name is Tina, has had a baby, and well, Tina would like to have the baby baptized.”

The pastor suggested that Tina should come to see him, along with her husband, and then they would discuss the possibility of baptism.

The woman looked up at the pastor and said, “Tina has no husband.  She is not a member of this church but attended the youth group some when she was in Junior High School. But then she got involved with this older boy.  And now she has this baby.  She is only 17.”

The pastor awkwardly mumbled that he would bring the request before the next meeting of Session, their church board meeting.

When the pastor presented the request before the Session, there was a lot of mumbling?  “Who was the father?”  The pastor said that he didn’t know.  “Does Tina have any other family?” “I don’t know,” the pastor said. Heads turned.

“How could they be sure that Tina would be faithful to the promises that she was making in the baptism?” was a concern brought by more than one elder.

The pastor only responded by shrugging his shoulders, but thought to himself, “How could they really be sure about anybody’s promise?”

With a lot of reservations, the Session reluctantly approved the baptism of Tina’s baby for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

When the Fourth Sunday of Advent came, the sanctuary was full as children were home from college and many of the members had invited guests. They went through the service singing the usual Advent hymns, “O Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” and so forth. Then, it was time for the baptism.

The pastor announced, “And now would those to be presented for baptism come forward.”  An elder of the church stood up and read off the three-by-five card, indicating that he did not remember the woman or the child’s name, “Tina Corey presents her son, James, for baptism.”  The elder sat back down with an obvious grimace on his face.

Tina got up from where she was seated and came down to the front, holding two-month old James in her arms. A blue pacifier was stuck in his mouth. The scene was just as awkward as the pastor and the elders knew it would be.

Tina seemed so young, so poor, so alone.

But as she stood there holding that baby with poinsettias and a Chrismon tree shining brightly in the foreground, they could not help but to think of another poor mother with a baby, young, alone, long ago, in somewhat similar circumstances.  Yes, in another place and time, Tina and Mary seemed like sisters.

And then the pastor came to that appointed part of the service when he asked, “And who stands with this child?”  He looked out at the mother of Tina dressed in her meager way, and nodded toward her.  She, almost hesitantly, awkwardly stood and moved toward her daughter and her grandson.

The pastor’s eyes went back to his service book to proceed with the questions to be asked of the parents when he became aware of movement within the congregation.  A couple of elders of the church stood up.  And many, on the same row, stood up beside them. Then the Junior High Sunday School teacher stood up. Then a new young couple in the church stood up. And then, before the pastor’s astonished eyes, the whole church was standing, moving forward, clustered around the baby.

Tina was crying.  Her mother was gripping the altar rail as if she were clutching the railing of a tossing ship, “which in a way she was”—a ship in a great wind.  Moving forward this day so much closer to her ultimate destination. And little James, as the water, touched his forehead, grew peaceful and calm, as if he could feel the warm embrace of the entire congregation. Every person in the room stood as if this was their child, as if they were all family.

The scripture reading was, as it often is during this time before Christmas, 1 John 3:1, “See what love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

Tomorrow night, a baby will be born into our family. But it is by this baby we have been made family.

Maybe you came to this service this morning and plan to come tomorrow night all by yourself.  Maybe you do not have much family, maybe you lost the family you had, or perhaps your family is far away.

But on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, here, right now, do you hear that rustling in the pews? Listen. That’s the sound of your family, the whole human family, taking shape around the manger. And in a few moments, as you gather around this table and prepare to break the bread and drink from the cup, strangers become sisters and brothers.

Christmas means the Word has become flesh and is dwelling among us.

And what is that word?

“See what love the Father has given to us so we should be called children of God. And so we are” (1 John 3:1).

For unto us a child is born.

So no child born should ever be called “illegitimate,” “illegal,” “alien,” or an “abomination.”

For unto us a child is born.

So we will stand up to stand with all God’s children.

For unto us a child is born.

So every child will be welcomed, loved and affirmed; every child will know their divine value, their sacred worth, and holy purpose.

For unto us a child is born.

So all children will receive the hospitality of a cold cup of water, a hot meal, and warm shelter.

For unto us a child is born.

So every child will have access to equitable education, a fair living wage, affordable healthcare, equal protection under the law—everything they need for a future full of promise, potential and peace.

For unto us a child is born.

So every child will know freedom, justice and salvation.

For unto us a child is born

So every child will experience life: abundant and eternal.

For unto us a child is born,

So blessed is the fruit of every womb.

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Ten Things to Keep in Christmas

keep christ in christmas2014

Every year, we hear it: “Put Christ back in Christmas!” “Keep Christ in Christmas!”  Well, if truth is to be told, there are many things Christians need to put back in Christmas. Here’s a list of ten things:

  1. Put the infant Jesus back in Christmas.

And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus (Luke 1:31).

The good news of Christmas is that for our weakness, God became weak. For our vulnerability, God became vulnerable. For our salvation, God became an infant.

God became a new-born baby dependent on humans to teach humans to become dependent on God.

As a church, let’s keep the infant Jesus in Christmas by always depending on God as infants depend on their parents. When we gather for communion each Sunday, we come not because we’re strong; but because we’re weak. We come, not because we have a lot faith, but because we have some doubt. We come, not because we are saints in need of affirmation, but because we are sinners in need of grace. We come, not because we are invincible and immortal, but because we are vulnerable and mortal.

  1. Put Quirinius, the governor of Syria, back in Christmas.

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-2).

When God chose to to reveal God’s love for the world, God chose to enter into a part of the world that has been demonized by Islamophobic Christians. I have heard people say that 9-11 taught them all they need to know about Middle Eastern people. The story of Christmas teaches me all I need to know. The people living in this part of the world are created in the image of God. When Jesus said, “For God so loved the world,” the was talking specifically about their world. They are God’s beloved children.

As a church, let’s keep the governor of Syria in Christmas by never dehumanizing or denigrating any person based on race, religion, or ethnicity and by courageously correcting people who do. Islamic extremists who run over and kill people in Central Park do not speak for all Muslims or all Middle Eastern people anymore than Christian extremists who run over and kill people in Charlottesville speak for all Christians or all Americans.

  1. Put Mary back in Christmas.

All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child (Luke 2:3-5).

It is ninety hilly miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. New Testament and biblical archaeology professor, James Strange, notes: “It was a fairly grueling trip…most traveled 20 miles a day.”

He continues: “Mary, as pregnant as she was, would have endured freezing temperatures, the constant threat of outlaws on the trade route, and harsh terrain. [And] when Mary finally reached Bethlehem, she and Joseph were turned away.”

As a church, we need to keep Mary in Christmas by always keeping risk in Christmas, by keeping adventure, sacrifice and selflessness in Christmas. Because the truth is, when the church becomes nothing more than a snug, safe, and static sanctuary, it ceases being the church.

  1. Put the manger back in Christmas.

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).

In our minds, the Nativity is majestic. It is glorious. There is no crying, no fussing, no restlessness, no dirty diapers, no spit up, no anxiety, no fear. Our Nativity is a serene, sweet, sanitized scene. But that was not the reality of Christmas. The reality of Christmas was not beautiful, and it was far from perfect.

We don’t sing AWAY in a Manger for nothing, as Jesus was born far, far away from home among animals in a cattle stall and placed in a feeding troth with the stench of wet straw and animal waste in the air.

So, as a church, let’s keep the manger in Christmas by always being authentic, real people living in the real world, concentrating on real problems, comforting real pain, confronting real evil. The last thing this fragmented world needs are more fake, sanctimonious, pretentious Christians.

  1. Put the shepherds back in Christmas.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified (Luke 2:8).

Like the Nativity, there is a tendency to romanticize the shepherds. After all, we have been raised in the church with our innocent children depicting shepherds wearing bathrobes in adorable Christmas plays. However, the reality is that shepherding was a despised occupation. New Testament Scholar Alan Culpepper writes: “In the first century, shepherds were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on others’ lands.” They were considered to be among the outcasts of society.

Fred Craddock wrote that the shepherds belong to the Christmas story “not only because they serve to tie Jesus to the shepherd king, David, but because they belong on Luke’s guest list for the kingdom of God: the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame.”

As a church, let’s keep the shepherds in Christmas by always standing on the side of all those those that society marginalizes.

  1. Put Joseph back in Christmas.

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (Matthew 1:18-19).

Because he was a righteous man, Joseph promised: “I will not harm her, ridicule her, expose her, shame her, or do or say anything that will demean her dignity, worth or personhood. I will protect her.”

Fred Craddock once said, “If the Bible causes you to hate anyone, you are reading it wrong.”

If your righteousness, your theology, your faith, causes you to shame, degrade or harm anyone, you are doing it wrong.

As a church, let’s keep Joseph in Christmas by always doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.

  1. Put King Herod back in Christmas.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him (Matthew 2:1-3).

King Herod was not frightened because a child was born to help people get through a trying week at home, school or work.

Herod wasn’t frightened because a child was born to help people have healthier relationships, healthier bank accounts, or even healthier spiritual lives.

Herod wasn’t frightened because a child was born to make a way for people to go to heaven when they died.

The king was frightened because the birth of that child meant that a political and social revolution was coming! And no amount of lying, deceit and collusion was going to stop it.

As a church, let’s keep King Herod in Christmas by understanding that following the way of Jesus always has political implications. Let us keep fighting systems of injustice and any policy or legislation that does not protect the liberty and justice of all.

  1. Put the gold, frankincense and myrrh back in Christmas.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). 

This part of the Christmas story has always bothered me. I could never figure how that little baby was going to be able to play with his Christmas presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh!

As a church, let’s keep these foreign Wise Men and their gifts in Christmas by always being receptive of new gifts, new ideas, new ways of doing things, even if they come from folks who did not grow up around here. Always remember the seven last words of a dying church are “We’ve never done it that way before.” 

  1. Put the refugees back in Christmas.

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod (Matthew 2:13b-15).

This part of the Christmas story bothers many of us, but we need to remember that Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus fled for their lives into Egypt where they lived in exile for years. Who knows what it must have been like for them to be forced out of their home under the threat of death and travel across nations through unwelcome terrain? Who knows how they must have felt to be so unwanted and threatened and unprotected? Who knows?

800,000 DACA recipients know.

A friend of mine moved to a new church during the Syrian refugee crises a couple of years ago when many state governors were giving executive orders denying sanctuary for Syrian refugees. During a sermon, he shared some statistics and pointed out that if every church in America would adopt just one Syrian refugee, there would be no refugee crisis. The next day, he said that “a contingent” showed up in his office.

“Pastor,” the contingent said, “we are here to tell you that your sermon yesterday about the refugees was out of bounds!”

A contingent. Every church has them. There are positive contingents, and there are negative contingents. The problem is that the negative ones are often more vocal.

As a church, let’s keep the refugees in Christmas by regularly sending a different kind of contingent into your pastor’s study to encourage him or her saying:

“Pastor, we want you to keep boldly preaching the good news of Jesus, and we want you to preach it without boundaries! Because if you ever start watering down the gospel because of a few negative contingents, if you give in and start preaching a love with restrictions, a hope with constraints, and a grace with limitations, you will no longer be preaching the good news!”

  1. Put the angels back in Christmas.

But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:10-11). 

New Testament scholar Culpepper writes: “The familiarity of these words should not prevent us from hearing that, first and foremost, the birth of Jesus was a sign of God’s abundant grace.” The birth of Jesus is a sign that God is on the side of ALL people—even the most despised, the most lowly, the most immoral, the most outcast.

As a church, let’s keep the angels in Christmas by always being a community of grace heralding good news of great joy for all the people, and all means all.

Let us pray together.

O God, thank you for Christmas. Now help us share Christmas by being Christmas, all of Christmas, for all of the world.

Invitation to Communion

Today we remember and celebrate the birth of Christ, God who came to us in human flesh, as a helpless baby. Those first invited to witness this event were a group of poor shepherds. They were not highly educated. They had no gifts to bring. They did not have fancy clothes. But an angel proclaimed to them, “A Savior has been born to YOU.” Today we come, as unworthy as those shepherds, to witness and receive God’s amazing grace and love.

This table is Christ’s table. It is not my table or the table of this congregation. It is the table of Jesus. And all who wish to know and love him are welcome here. Whether your faith is strong or wavering, whether you come to church often or have never been before, you are welcome here. It is Christmas and a Savior is born for YOU, and that same Savior welcomes you to this sacred meal.

 

Commissioning and Benediction

Go now and keep being the church and sharing the good news of Christmas in this community and in our world.

Go now into the world and keep humbly depending on God as infants depend on their parents.

Go into the world and keep keeping it real.

Go and keep preaching that all human beings are created in the image of God.

Go and keep doing justice on the behalf of the poor and marginalized.

Go and keep taking risks, serving others selflessly and sacrificially.

Go and keep doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Go and keep accepting gifts from others, even from outsiders.

Go and keep speaking truth to power, even if it gets you into trouble.

Go and keep preaching a love without restrictions, even if a contingent says you are out of bounds.

Go and keep heralding the good news of great joy for all the people. All the people. And all means all.

 

And always go in the name of the Savior who was born in the City of David who is Christ the Lord.

Christmas Shoes

sandals2

John 1:6-8, 19-28 NRSV

Regarding the gift of Christmas, the gift of God’s enfleshed self to the world, John said, “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”

It was written in Jewish law that “pupils should do everything that is commanded by their teacher with the exception of unlacing the teacher’s shoes.”  The subservient task of kneeling to the ground and unlacing another’s shoe was something only a slave should perform.[i]

This means that John not only regarded himself unworthy to be a disciple of Jesus, he believed he was unworthy to even be a slave of Jesus. When he compared himself to the one wearing the shoes of Christmas, John regarded himself as lower than the lowliest lowly.

And who could blame him? John was talking about God, the Holy Creator of all that is, the Divine One who has come down to earth wearing shoes. John was talking about the great sovereign of the universe from on high, miraculously and lovingly stooping  low enough to the earth to kneel down to the ground,  put on, lace up and wear shoes. John was talking about heavenly feet accustomed to walking on celestial streets where angels trod that have put on earthly shoes in order to walk the same roads each one of us walk.

Although it was John’s plan to make our windy and rocky roads straight and smooth for these holy shoes, the purpose of these shoes was to walk every crooked path, experience every twist and turn, identify with every bump, every dip, every rut. The Lord of Hosts stooped down, knelt down, and laced up shoes to walk down snaky roads; travel down uncertain roads; journey down long, lonely, and desolate roads.

God knelt down and put shoes on feet that would grow weary and sore from those roads. God laced up shoes that would cause great suffering when Jesus’ feet would swell, blister and bleed.

Those shoes ran down fearful, foreign roads to escape Herod’s sword. Those shoes would journey down dark, dangerous wilderness roads that try the soul. Those shoes would travel down desperate roads to bring good news to the poor. Those shoes would travel down neglected roads to give dignity to those marginalized by a religion that had been hijacked by evil. Those shoes would walk roads lined with the hypocritical and judgmental to defend and forgive the sinner. Those shoes would move down roads paved with suffering to heal and restore the sick. They would go down tear-soaked roads to comfort mourners and raise the dead.

And near the end of his road on this earth, those holy shoes, worn, frayed and tattered by life, would lead him to a table with his friends. After supper, he would get up from that table, take off his outer robe, and tie a towel around himself. He would then pour water into a basin. And like his humble beginning in a lowly manger, he would once again stoop down, kneel to the ground, and lovingly, empathetically and subserviently untie the shoes of each one at that table, even the shoes of the one who would betray him and of the one who would deny ever knowing him.

Now, in the historical and cultural context of the day, the disciples’ shoes would be removed long before they reclined at the table. However, figuratively and theologically speaking, Jesus untied their laces and removed their shoes.[ii]

Relief, respite and release overcame them as they realized that none of their unworthiness prevents their Lord from graciously taking their feet into his hands and washing away all of the dirt and grime from every road they had ever traveled. None of their filth is too offensive. There are no stains too deep. The fresh water from the basin that restores, refreshes and relaxes their wearied feet is miraculously transformed into living water that saves their wearied souls.

The good news of Christmas is that the Holy One, whose laces we are unworthy to untie, comes to us, stoops down, kneels before us, and unlaces our shoes, freeing us in the places we have been too tightly bound.  He empathetically takes our feet into his hands and washes our dirty, sore and weary feet, and makes us ready for the road again.

That is the good news of Christmas. Now, listen to the good irony of Christmas.

John believed he was unworthy to untie the shoes of Christmas. However, because of those Christmas shoes, John is not only worthy to untie and remove those shoes, John is actually worthy to put on and wear those shoes.

Through the gift of Christmas, through the gift of the God who has walked where we walk, through the gift of the Divine who stoops down, unties and removes our shoes, washing our feet and our souls, we are made worthy to not only untie the shoes of Christmas, but to wear the shoes of Christmas. We are worthy to put on Christmas shoes to go where he went, to do as he did, to include as he included, to forgive as he forgave, to love as he loved, to bend ourselves to the ground to touch the places in people that most need touching.

It is believed that fourteenth century saint Teresa of Avila once said:

Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world, and yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.

The Apostle Paul has written:

How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news (Romans 10:15).

Don’t worry. It is perfectly natural to feel unworthy to untie those laces, wear those shoes, to be the feet, the body of Christ.  And if you believe you are unworthy you are in very good company.

Abraham and Sarah did not believe they were young enough to be worthy (Genesis 17:17). Jacob was not truthful enough to be worthy (Genesis 27). Moses was not articulate enough (Exodus 4:10). David was not faithful enough. (2 Samuel 11:2-4). Rahab was not pure enough (Joshua 2:1). Jeremiah was not mature enough (Jeremiah 1:6). Mary was not rich or powerful or old enough (Luke 1).

Yet, God makes the unworthy worthy to be God’s enfleshed presence in this world, to be God’s body, hands, eyes, and feet in this world. As the Apostle Paul reminds each of us:

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:26-27).

William Willimon tells a wonderful story about a visit to a fraternity house one night while he was the campus minister at Duke University. The reputations of the fraternity houses at Duke were getting so bad that the University Dean required each fraternity to have a certain number of religious programs each year to give them at least some semblance of respectability.

One of the fraternities invited Willimon to lead one of the programs. He was to come to the frat-house and give a lecture on “Morality and Character on Campus.”

On the appointed evening, Willimon went to fraternity and knocked on the door. When the door opened, he was greeted by a young boy who appeared to be nine or ten years old.  He thought, “What in the world is a little boy like this doing in a frat house at this time of night?”

“They are waiting for you in the common room,” the little boy said politely. Willimon followed the boy back to the common room where all the young men were gathered, glumly waiting for the preacher’s presentation.

Willimon says for about an hour he talked about morality, responsibility, character and faith and how the frat houses on campus gave little evidence of any of those things. When he finished his talk he asked if there were any questions. Of course they were none. So he thanked them for inviting him and headed out.

One young man got up and walked him to the door. Before they got to the door, Willimon overhead him say to the little boy, “Hey buddy, you go and get ready for bed. I’ll come up, tuck you in and read you a story in a few minutes.”

When they got outside, the fraternity boy lit a cigarette, took a long drag on it, and thanked the pastor for coming out.

Willimon turned and asked, “Who is that kid in there, and what is he doing here?”

“Oh, that’s Donny,” said the young man. “Our fraternity is part of the Big Brother program in Durham. We met Donny that way. His mom is addicted to drugs and is having a tough time. Sometimes it gets so bad that she can’t care for him. So we told Donny to call us if he ever needs us. We go over, pick him up, and he stays with us until it is okay to go back home. We take him to school, buy his clothes, books, and stuff like that.”

Willimon stood there dumbfounded. He said, “That’s amazing. You know, I take back everything I said in there about you guys being immoral and irresponsible.”

“I tell you what’s amazing,” said the college boy as he took another drag on his cigarette, “what’s amazing is that God would pick a guy like me to do something this good for somebody else.”[iii]

In other words: “What’s amazing is that God, the Holy Creator of all that is, would make an unworthy guy like me worthy to not only untie, but to wear the shoes of Christmas.

Let us pray together.

God, continue to remind us that you have made each of worthy to untie and wear Christmas shoes to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Amen.

 

INVITATION TO THE TABLE

The angel announced to the shepherds that they were bringing good news of great joy for all people. All people.

Thus, all people, those who belong to this church, those who belong to other churches, and those who belong to no church, are invited to gather around this table and receive holy communion. All people.

This means people of great faith and people of great doubt. All people.

May all prepare for communion as we remain seated and sing together.

 

COMMISSIONING AND BENEDICTION

Go now into the world as the enfleshed presence of God, the body of Christ wearing Christmas shoes on your feet.

Go remembering that Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.

Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world, and yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.

And may the love of Christmas, the grace of Christmas and the communion of Christmas be with us all. Amen.


[i] Alan Culpepper, Smyth and Helwys Commentary: Mark, 2007, p. 47.

[ii] From a sermon by J. Will Ormond entitled Advent on a Shoestring preached during Advent in 1987 at the Columbia Theological Seminary.

[iii] From a sermon by William Willimon in Pulpit Resource, January 2006, p. 19.

Thanksgiving Day Collusion

Turkey

Like many of us, after a big Thanksgiving meal, the only thing I want to do is take a nap. It is like I am in some drug-induced coma!

Several years ago, we were told that the culprit behind our Thanksgiving afternoon slumber and subsequent Advent hangover was too much Tryptophan!

Although scientists are now telling us that the amount of Tryptophan found in turkeys is no greater than the amount found in chicken, there still seems to be something about Turkey that makes it difficult to keep one’s eyes open watching the Dallas Cowboys Thursday afternoon.

Do you know what I think?

[warning: satire ahead]

I think there might be some type of criminal collusion afoot here, some type of evil conspiracy to make Christians sleep through the next four weeks that we call Advent! In addition to the Tryptophan, perhaps our turkeys have been inserted with some drug to make Christians miss the real reason for this most wonderful of seasons!

We essentially sleep through Advent and Christmas each year and miss the good news that the God who created the heavens and earth loves all of us so much that God humbled God’s self and became one of us, suffering for us even to the point of death, even death on the cross.

How else can one explain the number of Christians who believe God calls some people “abominations” simply because of the way they were born? How else can one explain the number of Christians who defend men who brag about molesting women or prey on fourteen-year old girls? How else can one explain how many Christians believe that God is behind hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and fires? How else can one explain Christians who dehumanize and scapegoat others for living a different faith, speaking a different language, or having a different skin tone? What else explains the apathy of so many Christians towards the poor and the marginalized? What explains the failure of so many Christians to love their neighbors?

Maybe Christians have eaten so much turkey at Thanksgiving that they’ve slept through countless Christmases!

Christians go through the whole month of December with their head in a fog, their souls numb to the good news that God is with us all and for us all, always working all things together in our world for the good. Every year, wearing turkey goggles, we somehow fail to see the good news of Christmas.

Now, I know I am not going to convince you to skip the turkey this year. Therefore, I urge all of you to plan to detox your souls by participating in our Advent Services of Worship leading up to Christmas Eve. Fight the terrible turkey withdrawals! Stay awake! And see the good news that God is Emmanuel, God with us!

A Nurse’s Prayer: Remembering Marianna Powell

Marianna Powell

I’m certain that many people have contacted the Powell family since Sunday to let them know that they were in their prayers.

Prayer: it is a wonderful gift of God’s grace. To know that others, some from great distances, from all over the country, are speaking to God on our behalf, asking God to bring us healing and comfort, can bring us a peace that is truly beyond our understanding.

For the good news is that we believe that God not only hears our prayers, listens to our prayers, but we believe God does all that God can do, gives all that God can give, to always answer our prayers.

This is why I loved Kerry’s response when I asked him and his brother Randy: “What was the most important thing that your mother taught you?”

Without hesitation, he said, “She taught us how to pray.”

Immediately, Randy nodded in affirmation.

I said, “What do you mean?”

“Oh. she would work and work with us to help us remember the and recite the words of the Lord’s Prayer,” he said. “Prayer was important to her. She believed in prayer. Before meals, before bed, she taught us to always pray.”

We talked a little more about prayer, but it wasn’t long, nor hard to understand, how prayer was the perfect segue to begin talking about her life, especially how she loved her vocation as a registered nurse.

As Randy and his wife Kandi, and Kerry and his wife Maria, who is also a nurse, talked about how important nursing was to Marianna, I began thinking about my grandmother who, like Marianna, was also born on April 19, but one year later in 1927; and, like Marianna, was also a registered nurse.

I will never forget my Nana talking about how she enjoyed nursing. She would often speak of what she believed to be “the healing power of personal touch,” the importance of “up close and personal” contact with patients.

And whenever I was sick or not feeling well, I always felt better when Mama would have Nana come over to check on me. I always felt better when Nana would come close to me, gently place the back of her hand on my forehead to check for a fever, placing her hands around my cheeks and neck to check for swelling.

Yes, as I said, there are many people praying for the Powell family today, some from great distances. They have sent cards, made phone calls, or reached out electronically with emails or social media, all pledging the Powell family their sincere prayers. Prayer is a wonderful gift of God’s grace. The Powell family appreciates prayer. Marianna taught them to believe in prayer.

But, then there are others (and I am speaking of you) who have gathered here in this place this morning. I am speaking of your who, as they they say, have put some feet on your prayers. You have come to be close this family in their grief. You have come to lay your hands on them, to touch them with an empathetic handshake or a loving embrace.

And they will forever be grateful for your presence here today. They will be grateful that you are not only here and near to them on this day, but grateful for the way that you will always remind them of their mother, grandmother and sister, for the way that you will always remind them of this this one with the heart of a nurse who loved them and loved others and prayed for so many, not from a distance, but up close and very personally.

I shared with the family the story of one of my first visits with Marianna. She was in the dining hall of the nursing home eating dinner. I pulled up a chair and sat beside her. At first, perhaps due to the strokes that she had suffered, she seemed to be a little distant, aloof.  I was on her left, unsure that she recognized my presence. She was sitting up, but slumping a little bit to the right, away from me.

However, when I leaned over and touched her arm, telling her that I was her pastor from Central Christian Church, she immediately turned to make eye contact with me and smiled. And I will never forget what happened next.

With strength that I did not know she possessed, she sat up and started leaning her head towards me.

The caregiver who was feeding her said: “She wants to kiss you!”

Surprised, but pleasantly so, I leaned in, turned my cheek towards her as she gave me what has to be one of the sweetest kisses I have ever received!

She loved her church and this one who represented her church so much, she prayed for her church in such a way that she could not remain distant, aloof. With the heart of a nurse still beating inside of her, she wanted to demonstrate her love, up close and personally. With every bit of strength that she could muster, with all that she had, a pure and powerful love compelled her to sit up and lean forward, until she could come close enough to me to offer me a prayer through her touch, through a beautiful kiss on the cheek.

Marianna taught her children how to pray with words. But, perhaps, more importantly, she also taught them how to pray with her life, with all that she had.

I believe the Apostle Paul aptly describes Marianna’s life when he wrote that we should “pray without ceasing.” That is, we should live a life of prayer. We should live our lives as if we are always with the Holy One.

It was this prayerful life that Randy and Kerry said taught them the Christian values of love, kindness and respect. However, they were both quick to point out: “Now we are not saying that we have always conveyed to others these values or lived out these values like our mother! We are just saying that because of our mother, and because of what she taught us with her life, we have at least been blessed with the wonderful opportunity live those values.”

We then talked about her love for God’s entire creation, especially for her beloved horses. They will never forget the time they took her to say goodbye to one of her horses. As you can imagine, Marianna did not say not say goodbye with a simple wave through the car window. She got as close as she could possibly get to her horse, so the horse could feel her touch and know her love.

This is why I thought it was rather interesting that one of the memories that Randy and Kerry said they will always cherish was their mother reading them the Christmas story from Luke’s gospel every Christmas. They then talked about how important it was to them to sit at their mother’s bedside this past Christmas and read it to her:

         In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  (Luke 2:8-14)

I find this interesting because the story of Christmas is essentially a story of a God who loved this world so much that God could not remain distant, aloof. God did not merely say to the heavenly host: “Let us pray for the creation. Let us pray for humanity.”

And of course, that in itself would have been enough. Because we believe in prayer. Marianna taught us to believe in prayer.

The writer to the Hebrews assures us that

[Christ] is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” The writer is saying that Jesus lives to make intercession for us. In other words, Jesus lives today to pray for us (Hebrews 7:25).

The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans writes:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that the very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).

If we ever worry that no one is praying for us, the Apostle Paul says that we can stop worrying. If no one earth is praying for us, Jesus certainly is. Jesus is our High Priest. He is our intercessor. He is our advocate. Christ lives today to pray for us. Even when we don’t know how to pray for others or for ourselves, even when we cannot find the words to pray, Paul says that the Spirit of God intercedes for us with “sighs too deep for words.”

Yes, if all God did for us was pray for us, even from a distance, that would be enough.

However, the love of God, the love of God that was revealed to us through Marianna Powell, and through Christ Jesus himself, is so great, so pure, and so powerful, that there was no way in heaven that God could remain distant, aloof.

God’s love for us compelled God to summon all the strength God could muster, to summon all that God had to give. Love compelled God to sit up in the heavens, and lean towards the earth, until God could come close enough to us to offer us a prayer through the “up close and personal” touch of the Divine, through a baby—Christ the Good Lord, the Good Shepherd, the Good Teacher, the Good Nurse—lying in a manger.

This is how we who are grieving today can truly be filled with a peace beyond understanding. People are not only praying for us from a distance. People are indeed here, in this room, with us. And God is not praying for us from some aloof heavenly place. God is indeed Emmanuel, which means, “God with us.”

God is here with us as God is with Marianna, loving her, touching her, embracing her, now and forevermore.

I want to close my remarks thanking God for Marianna’s love for us and for the special way that she revealed God’s love for us with these beautiful words by Allison Chambers Coxsey, entitled: A Nurse’s Prayer.

Give me strength and wisdom,

When others need my touch;

A soothing word to speak to them,

Their hearts yearn for so much.

Give me joy and laughter,

To lift a weary soul;

Pour in me compassion,

To make the broken whole.

Give me gentle, healing hands,

For those left in my care;

A blessing to those who need me,

This is a Nurse’s prayer.

Disappointment at Christmas

christmas-disappointment-7159866

Matthew 11:2-11 NRSV

It’s the Third Sunday of Advent. The days are getting shorter. The nights are growing longer. The last month of the year is a darker, colder place to live. And it is in this cold December darkness that we are all a little more sensitive, a little more attuned to the real darkness and chill of our world. The world around us appears even more fragile than usual, more harsh, and more broken.

Human service organizations report record number of volunteers and donations in the days leading up to Christmas. It’s really kind of silly when you think about it. The homeless are still homeless in July. The cold are even colder come February. Nursing home residents won’t be any younger when March arrives, and the hospitals are filled with the sick every month of the year. But at Christmas, our hearts become a little more tender, and they tend to bleed just a little bit more.

And here lies our great December disappointment. Our holiday awareness of the world’s plight is the great paradox of Christmas. If God so loved the world that God was willing to become flesh and be Emmanuel, God with us, why is there so much pain and suffering in our world? Why is there so much poverty, sickness, injustice, and pure evil? Why is this world so cold, so dark?

Death, divorce, disease, destitution, desperation, despair—darkness—it envelops us like a December Arctic blast.

If God so loved the world that God was willing to become flesh and dwell among us, if Christmas really occurred, if God truly came, if good news actually happened, why is this world still so cold? Why are we left disappointed?

I believe these are the questions with which John the Baptizer struggled.

As we mentioned last week, John is the very first character in the Christmas drama. He is the one of whom Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than [he]”. He is the one who had given his entire life to God, who had very faithfully and courageously lived out his purpose in life preparing the world for the advent of the Messiah. His important role in salvation history had been prophesied years earlier by the prophets Isaiah and Malachi. And he fulfilled this role with utmost humility and commitment.

When people felt led to worship him, John quickly said, “No, for there is one who is coming who is more powerful than me, for I am not even worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.”

And what does he get? What is his reward?

Imprisonment. He is locked up in a cold, dark cell waiting for the Romans to cut off his head.

Talk about Christmas paradoxes!

“Wait one minute!” John must have thought. “This can’t be happening! Not to me! Not to the one who was chosen by God to prepare the hearts of people for the Advent of the Messiah! I have been so faithful, so courageous. I have sacrificed, and I have given my all. And just look at me now! Look what I have gotten! Look where I am! My world could not be more cold, more dark!  Something is just not right about this.”

Can you relate?

I can.

So, there, in prison, enveloped in disappointment, John sent word asking Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come?” Are you the messiah? Are you the one about whom I have been preaching all these years?

“Or are we to wait for another?” Someone who is even more powerful. Someone who will finally come and set this world straight. For if you are truly the Messiah, why is my world so dark? Why am I sitting in prison about to lose my head? Why do I feel the way that I feel? Why am I so disappointed? Something is just not right with this picture. Jesus, I want, I need some answers!”

Jesus answered John alright. Just not the way he hoped he might answer. Jesus told his disciples to “Go and tell John what you hear and see. The blind receive their sight. The lame walk. The lepers are cleansed. the deaf hear. The dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

What is Jesus telling John by pointing to these signs of the Messiah’s coming?

Well, I know what he is not telling John the Baptist. As one who has read about John ten chapters earlier in Matthew and as one who knows something of the disappointment of this world, I know that Jesus was not telling John what John wanted to hear.

Jesus was not saying, “Yes, John, I am the one. I am the Messiah of the world who is coming with my ax in hand to cut down the Romans and throw them into the fire! With my winnowing fork, I am coming to clear the threshing floor and burn your enemies with an unquenchable fire!

So Cuz, you just sit tight, because Christmas is coming and things are about to get straightened out! Somebody’s coming to town and he’s making a list! He’s checking it twice! So all who are against you, why, they better watch out!”

No, Jesus said, “I am he. I am Christmas. However, Christmas is not carrying an ax and a winnowing fork and harsh words of condemnation. I’m carrying bread for the hungry. I am carrying water for the thirsty, and I’m carrying words of forgiveness for the sinners.”

The one who is more powerful than John comes, but this powerful one comes with a different type of power: a selfless, self-expending power. He comes to rule not with an iron fist, but with outstretched arms. He comes to love and to save and to die. The Messiah goes into villages, not to burn them down with unquenchable fire. But goes into villages to eat at the table with sinners, to give hope to the poor, to bring wholeness to the broken, and to give life to the dead.” This one who is more powerful than John comes as a suffering servant.

From his cold, dark prison cell, John the Baptist heard about this so he sent word inquiring, “Are you the one? Are you the Messiah who is to come?  Or are we to look for another?”  John’s whole ministry had been pointing to Jesus, saying that he is the one. Now John asks Jesus, “Are you really the one?”

John preached, “The Messiah is coming!  He’s going to fix everything.  He’s going to straighten the whole thing out. He’s going to finally set things right.  But now the Messiah had come. And John the Baptist is in prison. And he’s about to have his head served up on a silver platter.

Anticipation of the Messiah has now met the reality of the Messiah.  And for John, and if we are honest, for even us today, there is some disappointment.

And all John was told was to look for these signs of his coming. And although these signs were not what he expected, and certainly not what he wanted, miraculously, John will soon learn, as we all are still learning, that these signs were all he truly needed.

And you know what I am talking about! The good news is: Jesus the Messiah of the world has come to this earth as the light of the world to save us all from Satan’s power, and there are signs all around us that prove it!

The blind receive their sight—you know people who are physically blind, yet they can see God more distinctly, see hope more clearly, and see love more purely than anyone with 20/20 vision.

The lame walk—you know people in wheelchairs who are more whole, more together, more able, and more gifted than some world-class professional athletes.

Lepers are cleansed—you know people who have been demeaned, degraded and dehumanized, yet they have more of a sense of belonging, of distinction, of purpose, of eminence, than royalty.

The deaf hear—you know some hearing impaired who are more attentive, more alert and more keenly aware of this miraculous gift we call Christmas than folks who can hear a pin drop.

The dead are raised—you know people who on their deathbeds were more conscious, more hopeful and more alive than some couples on their wedding day.

And the poor have good news brought to them—And we all know folks who do not have a dime to their name, yet they are richer, more satisfied and better-off than some of the wealthiest people we know.

And there was once an old preacher named John sitting in a cold, dark Roman prison cell, about to lose his head, who, although he did not always realize it, was more liberated, more unfettered and unshackled, and more free than any new born baby!

And then there are the small signs of Christmas that are all around us—in a friend’s or a spouse’s undeserved forgiveness; in the innocent love of a child; in a warm embrace; in a friend’s thoughtful visit, encouragement, empathy and love; in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of a cup.

And these signs can also be seen through serving a hot meal to a stranger; giving a coat or providing shelter to the cold and undeserving; visiting the lonely in a nursing home; and wrapping gifts for families you have and will never meet.

Yes, on the surface, John the Baptist may have been disappointed when Messiah did not come quite as he preached, when Christmas did not come with a fire to conquer and destroy his enemies. But I believe John began to learn, as we are all still learning today, that fire can take many forms. Yes, some of the forms are destructive and dominating in their effects.  But other forms are warm, comforting, purifying, light-producing and life-giving. These are the forms of fire which our Messiah, which Christmas takes in our world.

And because of this, on this Third Sunday of Advent, on this dark, cold day of December, we light another candle, and we are still learning that light does not disappoint us.