Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Eve Message

The Christmas season can at times be marked by various quests for perfection
The perfect Christmas present
The perfect Christmas decorations
The perfect Christmas feast
The perfect Christmas eve service
When these quests are marked by a sincere desire to bring joy and love to all around us, we can affirm and celebrate this.  Indeed, I think most of us try to go out of our way to be a little nicer, a little more loving, during this Christmas season.
But there can be a dark side to this quest to get everything and everybody just so...
We can begin to feel inadequate.  
Begin to become obsessed with perfection, become harried, run all over town
We beat ourselves up
Begin to feel inadequate.
So, when we begin to think about the Christmas story, the idea that God came to earth to be with us, it can seem a little overwhelming, unbelievable even.
With all that is going on in the world, with all of my faults, could God really have sent his son into this world for me?  Surely, there are people far more important, far more influential, far more Christlike, whom God is coming to on this day.  
I think there is no one who would have protested more, no one who might have felt more inadequate, than the cast of characters we see in Luke’s nativity story.
Let’s take them one by one:
-  She was likely 13 or 14 years old.
-  She was engaged to a man she likely barely knows
-  All of a sudden, she finds herself pregnant.
-  Now, she is an unwed mother
“She must have been scared.  She was very humble, a poor little girl.”

Yes, she did have an angel come and explain it to her, but can you imagine what her life must have been like during those nine months?
Can you imagine the looks she might have received from the people in the community.  People doing math, trying to add up the months, seeing if whatever story Mary told really fit the situation.  I mean, how is she supposed to explain this.  
“Oh, no, I didn’t cheat on Joseph.  An angel came to me, made me pregnant even though I am a virgin, and said my son is the Messiah.....Wait, where are you going?  Why are you laughing”
So who knows how she explained herself.  Did she hide?  Did she have anyone who believed her?  Imagine the shame she must have felt in these months.  I doubt she would have felt like she was worth of God coming to her.
Here he is, engaged to be married, only to find his fiance is pregnant.  Now Joseph certainly knows that the child isn’t his.  Here is how the scripture tells it:
“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.”
So, notice, Joseph finds out long before any angel comes to explain it.  Can you imagine the emotions he must have felt?  Rage.  Betrayal.  Humiliation.
When he discovered this, he could have had Mary stoned to death. It would have been perfectly legal, and within his rights.  In fact, that would have been considered to be the righteous thing to do.  But, Joseph is apparently a generous man, and so he just decides to divorce her instead.  However, before he can act, Joseph too receives a visit from an angel.  He is convinced he should stay with Mary, but again, can you imagine his life in the months to come?
Before the angel had a chance to visit, did Joseph tell anyone about his disgrace?  If people were doing the math about Mary, certainly they were doing the same with Joseph.  Do you think he might have been teased, his manhood questioned, by those who suspected he wasn’t the father?  How emasculating of an experience.  What shame he must have felt.  I doubt he would have felt like he was worthy of God coming to him.

At the bottom of the socio-economic world of first-century Palestine, the shepherds have no right, no expectation, no hope in the world of being touched by the divine.
“Shepherds were often despised as thieves unfit for more respectable occupations.  Their testimony was not allowed in court nor their presence in polite society, so shepherds found their place on the outskirts of towns.  They were largely shunned by the mainstream population.”
“They were alone, abandoned by everybody.”
As people who work with animals and outside of villages, you can imagine that they likely smelled quite ripe.  Even the peasants in the towns would have looked down upon them.  When they did have to go into the cities, can you imagine how they must have felt?  The people sneered at these country rubes.  People would cross the street to avoid interacting with, and especially smelling, these roughnecks who were the lowest of the low.  What shame they must have felt as they went about their lives.  I doubt they would have felt like they were worthy of God coming to them.
And yet, wonder upon wonders, it is to the unwed mother that Jesus is born.  It is to the humiliated fiance that God will entrust his son.  It is to those who are considered so unreliable that they can’t testify that God entrusts with his message to proclaim.

God coming to perfect people?  Heavens no.  I imagine that those who do think they are perfect, might be too caught up in themselves to even notice when God breaks into the world.  No, God breaks through into this world to bring light and life to all people.  And thus, we declare that “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Right now, here and today, God is breaking into this world.  Christ is coming to bring light to whatever dark places there are in your life.  Jesus is here to be with you, exactly how you are.  If you feel like God is distant, if you feel like it is hard to sense the divine, if you feel like you are lost or are ashamed to be found, know that God is seeking you out, waiting to break forth into your life.  Like Mary, and Joseph, and the shepherds before you, God is seeking to bring you in to his divine work.  Through you, on this day, and in the weeks and months to come, Jesus is seeking to become flesh and to live amongst us.  If we allow ourselves to go through the pangs of birthing new life, we will see his glory, the glory of a father’s only son.  And our lives, and our world, will be filled with grace and truth.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The real spirit of Christmas

We in the church, and especially in American culture, do not do lament well.
We like our happy endings.
We are uncomfortable being in the vicinity of pain.
This is compounded at times by the Christmas season.  Whether it be the ads that play on tv, the holiday themed movies, the family gatherings, even, at times I must admit, our worship services around advent, we have a tendency to accentuate the positive.  Now their is nothing wrong in celebrating the joy of the Christmas season, except when it implies that everyone else has to feel the same way:

No, you can’t dread getting ready for the big family gathering...get in the Christmas spirit.
No, you can’t dread trudging through the shopping a happy giver.
And, above all else, don’t bring down our parties by expressing grief.  Don’t mention that you just don’t feel into it.  Don’t mention how tears seem to be just below the surface.  Don’t mention how much you feel the loss of your wife, husband, parent, child or friend.  Just let it go unsaid.
When we go to scripture, we, myself included, gravitate toward the Gospels.  We want to hear the good news- that Jesus loved us, that Jesus died for us, that we have a place in our Father’s house.  That indeed is good news, but it doesn’t necessarily mean eternal happiness and bliss.
There is a false gospel that gets preached all too often.  It’s one that says if we are just faithful enough, only good things will happen.  It implies that the world works as some kind of cosmic reward system where nothing bad happens to believers and where God punishes those without enough faith.
This kind of a message ruins people’s faith; it destroys lives.
It implies that when tragedy happens, you are either not being faithful, or God is just cruel.
Cannot accept this fake gospel-  this cheap alternative to what God has revealed to us.
That is that “God is with us.”
In our pain, suffering, etc.
And thus, our tradition, the one that extends beyond our contemporary culture’s tendency to deny or deflect from pain and suffering, actually gives it prime place in our scriptures:
Psalm 6:4-7
4 Turn, LORD, and deliver me;
   save me because of your unfailing love.
5 Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
   Who praises you from the grave?
 6 I am worn out from my groaning.
   All night long I flood my bed with weeping
   and drench my couch with tears.
7 My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
   they fail because of all my foes.
This ancient prayer calls out for deliverance.  In the Christmas season, we proclaim that that deliver has arrived.  When, God saw our ancestor’s pain, God came to earth in the form of Jesus to be with them.  Jesus came as God immanuel-  or, God with us.
Jesus wept-  with and for-  us.
Jesus suffered-  with and for-  us.
Jesus loved-     with and for-   us.
This is the good news, the real Gospel.
If you are someone who still is feeling an acute since of grief, I want to tell you that God has come, and continues to come, to be with us.  And he’s coming to be with you exactly as you are.  No forced smiles.  No need to cover up the running mascara.  No need to fake any emotion.  All you need is to be; to dwell within God’s loving arms.

If you’ve emerged from that most sensitive stage, or if you are caring for someone who is experiencing grief, I’d encourage you to follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Go, and be with them.  Not as someone to take their pain away.  Not as someone determined to wake them up out of their grief.   No, just go and be with them.  Demonstrate Christ’s love by sitting with them, holding them, giving space as needed.  But be present.  That is the greatest gift you can give this Christmas season.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Coming without power

John 3:16-17-  "This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn't go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.”
John 3:16 may be among the most well known texts in all of scripture.  For years, you couldn’t watch a football game without seeing a sign referencing it.  Though it is a much beloved passage, it might seem odd to highlight it in the midst of Advent.  You might rightfully ask yourself, did I forget Christmas was coming?
Truthfully, before today I have never considered how it might relate to the coming of Jesus.  I have associated the text mostly with the need to believe something specific about God.  However, I’m afraid I might have missed the point.  The verse isn’t so much about us as it is about revealing the character of God.  
When God felt that humanity had drifted from its intended purpose, the Creator did not wipe us out in a flood.  The Almighty did not send an army of angels to bring us in line.  The All Wise One did not even compel us to follow the Divine will.  No, when the gap between God and humanity became frightenly wide, God did not exercise power but choose to become powerless.  Jesus came as a baby, someone entirely dependent on his parents.  He became subject to fear, pain, grief, and all of the more difficult aspects of human life.  Jesus indeed came to set the world right again, but he did so by demonstrating that we are to live as people who enter into loving relationships with God and our neighbors by giving up our power and privilege.
In this Christmas season, may we follow Christ’s example.  May we seek to reconcile with those family members who may have become distant.  May we reach out to our neighbors, even those who get on our nerves, and be the love and peace of Christ for them.  May we seek to shape our lives so that with ever fiber of our being, our love will help us to set our the entire world right again.
Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Reflections on the Book of James

Our Sunday morning study finished the book of James. One of the last two questions asked was, ““What did you learn and what will you remember?”” Here are some comments:

““The Sunday morning adult class has completed James. Something I will remember about James is the second chapter verses 14-26 giving examples supporting faith without works is dead. Our class had already discovered the idea of faith in action and had our ideas reinforced.””

"With so much to do and so little time to do it we all look for short cuts. Our adult Sunday School class has found wonderful "cliff notes" on having a closer relationship with the Holy Spirit. It's the new testament book of James."

Have you studied this book before?  What inspiration did you draw from it?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Ruth's Love Gift Box

Our Wednesday 10 am Bible study invites you to participate in a little project that we have conceived as a result of our study of the book of Ruth. It came about as a result of our consensus that Ruth was primarily about LOVE and was attempting to show us that when we love, we put our neighbor's welfare before our own-- i.e. Ruth's sacrifice of everything familiar to serve and take care of Naomi.

As the story came about because of a famine in Judah, we felt the urge to show our love for people in a similar situation today. What better example of this can we find than the one in Haiti as they are now plagued with Cholera on top of hunger and the devastation of the horrific earthquake there this past January? Thus, we decided that responding to this epidemic would be our No. 1 priority! In the next few weeks, we will make available to anyone interested a "Ruth's Love Gift box" that you can take home and keep someplace convenient. We would ask you to make an over-and-above gift of ALL your pennies, nickels, and dimes each day until our summer break. We will gather up this offering the last Sunday of the month starting with December and forward it to the United Methodist's Committee on Relief's Haiti Emergency fund. This money will go to support relief and development efforts due to the emergencies in Haiti. If you would like a box or have any questions, please contact any member of our class or the church office.