Sunday, December 30, 2012

Growing Up

(A sermon based on Luke 2:41-52 & Colossians 3:12-17 for the 1st Sunday after Christmas Day)

The 2008 movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” told the story of how the title character was born as an old man and how as he lived he grew younger and younger until finally he just ceased to be. Reflecting on that story, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to carry the experiences of old age with you into middle age and those of old and middle age into young adulthood and those of old, middle, and young adulthood into adolescence and childhood. After all, what adult among us has not said, “If I had known then what I know now”?

That is not, though, how it works. We are born as babies and we grow into adults who become older and older adults until finally we die.

Since Jesus was a normal human baby, he grew up in the normal human way. As a baby he nursed, he burped, he spit up, he messed up his diaper, he cooed, and he cried. As a toddler he learned to walk and to talk; he stumbled and got boo-boos and he said words in cute ways that made Joseph and Mary laugh. As a child he played with the kids in the neighborhood and followed Joseph around the carpenter’s shop and had to get his homework done.

The Bible tells us none of that, of course. We can infer it, though, from the story of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple because in that story he acts a lot like any other child acts who is entering that wonderfully awful period of being suspended somewhere between childhood and adulthood. All of us adults remember those times in our life when our parents said “We’re going this way” and we said “I believe I’ll go that way”; we parents also remember when we said “We’re going that way” and our child said “I believe I’ll go this way.”

Discovering, finding, and exploring your own way is part of growing up. In the story of Jesus staying behind at the Temple we get a glimpse of him becoming aware of who he was and of who he was meant to be and of him working it out in the best way he could. Jesus was the Son of God and so he had a pre-history and a status that no one else had or has but he still, being human as well as divine, had to grow into a full awareness of who he was and of what he was to do.

The baby born in Bethlehem would grow up to be the adult who would show us God’s way and, by living in that way—the way of service, sacrifice, and love—would ultimately die on the cross for our sins. Jesus was the child of God, Mary, and Joseph, and all of his parents would help to guide him and to place him in a position to grow and to learn. But Jesus also had to make some choices for himself, choices that he made very well. God’s goal for Jesus, as it is for all of us, was for him to find and to develop what it meant to be who he was meant to be; Jesus had to develop the gifts that were his from his Father.

Jesus chose to stay behind at the Temple. But Jesus had parents who faithfully practiced their faith and had regularly put their son in a position to understand how important such practice was. Given who he was, who his parents taught him to be, and who he was growing to understand he was, I’m sure that when Joseph and Mary reflected on it later, they realized that the Temple was the first place they should have looked.

Jesus was actively engaged in becoming who his Father meant for him to be; he was actively engaged in the process of growing up into the man who would change the course of history and the course of so many lives.

What about us? Are we seeking to grow up? Are we actively putting ourselves in a position to move past being “babes in Christ” and to grow into being mature and productive believers?

Paul said to those of us who are God’s beloved and set apart children, “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). He went on to say, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14). He continued, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (3:15) and “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (3:16). Now all of these magnificent realities—compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, peace, and love—are gifts from God but we choose whether or not to put ourselves in a position to practice them and to develop them.

It is as the Dalai Lama, that great Tibetan Buddhist leader, said: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” We choose whether or not to let the gifts of God take root in our lives and cause us to grow up into mature faith.

I have often been told by someone who professes to follow Christ but whose behavior tended toward obnoxiousness and rudeness, “That’s just the way I am.” No, that’s just the way they choose to be; they don’t have to be that way. I’m not saying that it’s easy and I’m not saying that it’s automatic. I am saying that we have choices and that if we choose ahead of time, before the crisis strikes or before the hurt comes (which will happen if we are to have anything to do with people, which we must do if we are to be the church) that we are going to practice love, then we will grow in showing love and in being who we are meant to be.

My very wise Uncle Johnny told me about a man who had two dogs who tended to fight a lot. A friend asked the owner, “Which one wins?” The owner replied, “Whichever one I feed.” If you feed compassion instead of apathy, compassion will win. If you feed forgiveness instead of grudges, forgiveness will win. If you feed humility instead of pride, humility will win. If you feed love instead of hate, love will win. They are all God’s gifts to you but we need keep ourselves in a position to cultivate, practice, and develop them.

The baby Jesus had to grow up to be who he was meant to be and to do what he was meant to do.

You know how some parents mark the growth of their children on a door frame? If we marked our spiritual growth—our growth as a community as seen the way we exhibit compassion, forgiveness, and love—how high would our latest mark be?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me

(A message delivered at the Christmas Eve service at First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, GA)

“Wait, wait…don’t tell me!” It’s something you say when someone asks you a question and the answer is right on the tip of your brain but won’t quite make the leap to your mouth. You hear it when people are playing a quiz game or when a teacher asks a question or when someone is trying to guess what is in that funny looking package under the tree.

“Wait, wait…don’t tell me!”

That’s probably not the answer you would give were I to ask you, “What are we waiting for tonight?”

No, your initial and quick (and correct) reply would be “Jesus”; you wouldn’t need for me to wait for you to come up with that answer.

But what if I followed that question up with this one: “And what does that mean?”

“Wait, wait…don’t tell me!”

OK, I won’t. Perhaps you will allow me, though, to give you some things to think about as you formulate your answer.

Jesus is already and always here; we are waiting for one who is here and so maybe we need to consider our openness and availability to him. Behold, he stands at the door and knocks.

Jesus comes in both expected and unexpected ways; look for him where you expect to find him but always be ready to be surprised. People were looking for a Messiah to come but they were not looking for one like Jesus was.

Jesus came in a way that made him vulnerable; he was born as a helpless baby who grew up to be an adult who could have protected himself but chose not to do so. He is especially present today in the poor, the sick, the helpless, and the vulnerable.

Jesus will come again to make all things as they should be but even now he is moving things toward their completion. It’s a struggle to see it sometimes but we should be living with great faith and hope, not fear and pessimism.

Jesus came to bring peace—to bring wholeness and soundness in our relationships with God, with ourselves, and with each other. Such peace comes from God’s love working in and through us.

Let me ask one more question: “So how should we be living as we wait for the one who is already here?”

“Wait, wait…don’t tell me.”

OK—I’ll let Jesus himself tell you.

“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39).

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you”
(Matthew 5:3-12).

How then should we live? Let me at least tell you this much:

Be present.

Be ready.

Be vulnerable.

Be hopeful.

Be loving…

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jesus Is Coming—So Live!

(A sermon based on Micah 5:2-5a & Luke 1:39-55 for the 4th Sunday of Advent)

Here on this fourth and last Sunday of Advent, on the eve of Christmas Eve, I want to talk with you about being pregnant.

While I suspect that most of the children (and I reckon all of the adults) present know the meaning of the word, allow me to tell you that our English word “pregnant” comes from a Latin word meaning “before child”; it thus came to have the meaning of being “with child.” A pregnant woman is a woman who is going to have a baby, then.

Our Gospel text tells us about two pregnant women, Elizabeth and Mary, who were kin. Did you ever see the movie Father of the Bride, Part 2? The story involved a middle-aged mother and her young daughter who were pregnant at the same time; it being a movie, they delivered their babies at virtually the same time on the same day in the same hospital attended by the same doctor. The story of Elizabeth and Mary is not quite like that—they were likely cousins and their due dates were six months apart—but it is an even more amazing story because it tells of how their pregnancies related to each other in the carrying out of God’s plan to bring the promise of new life into the world.

They became pregnant under interesting circumstances that, because of the role of God, became miraculous circumstances.

I guess we could say the same thing about most pregnancies, though, couldn’t we? I mean, how many of you don’t believe that the birth of your children was a gift from God?

When I was a little boy and asked my father where I came from, he said, “Your Mama and I prayed for you.” I suspect that Elizabeth had earlier in her life prayed that she would have a child; I also suspect that, given her advanced age, she had quit such praying. Mary, on the other hand, was in no position to want or to have a child so her pregnancy came as a very unexpected and troubling gift.

We can scarcely imagine the awkward position in which Elizabeth’s pregnancy placed her or the even more awkward position in which Mary’s placed her. Elizabeth and Zechariah had been unable to have children and they “were getting on in years” (Luke 1:7); while we can’t know how old they were they were clearly “too old” to be having a baby. It is the kind of situation that generates snickers and raised eyebrows.

Mary, on the other hand, was young and poor and unmarried; that’s the kind of situation that generates cruelty and maliciousness—much more so then than now. Mary may well have been grateful that Gabriel’s words to her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy gave her an opening to get out of town.

We are very good at putting ourselves in an awkward situation; sometimes, though, God puts us in one for the sake of God’s purpose. Odd as it may sound, being the recipient of God’s grace can make you uncomfortable. It is God’s way for us that the experience of such awkwardness and uncomfortableness is really a blessing, although it may not always seem like it.

The difficult situations in which Elizabeth and Mary found themselves were worth it because of the life that was stirring within them, waiting to emerge into the world and to make a difference in that world.

I remember when Debra was pregnant with each of our children and she would say to me, “Put your hand here” so I could feel a little of what she felt as the baby kicked. And every fiber of my being would cry out, “Wow! This is amazing!” while they at the same time whispered, “Wow! This is scary.” Life was stirring in her, life that was going to come crashing into this world and make a lasting impression.

So it was that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice the prenatal John “leaped in her womb” (Luke 1:41). Elizabeth then said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Luke 1:42-43). John’s calling in life was going to be to proclaim the coming of the Messiah and he obviously could hardly wait to get started. What a life was stirring in Elizabeth!

Then Mary started talking about the life within her and what God was going to do through him. She celebrated the great mercy and strength of God. She said that through the life in her—a life that had not yet been born—God had scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, lifted up the lowly, and filled the hungry. In short, God had kept God’s promises! Mary was so sure that it would happen that she could talk about it as if it already had happened.

It has happened. It will happen. It is happening. God is in the process of keeping God’s promises.

One of the ways God does that is by causing life to stir in us, in God’s people. Mary gave birth to Jesus, but our Micah text says that the people of Israel as a whole were in labor with the coming Messiah. These days, we are the body of Christ. As Teresa of Avila said,

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ's compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.

Each of us individually, all of us as a church, and all of God’s people everywhere have the life of Christ stirring within us. What does that mean for you? What does it mean for us?

One of our beloved Christmas carols offers this prayer: “O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today.” He is born in us. He is born in us to bring about mercy, peace, grace, and justice. He is born in us to turn things upside down, to turn us outward, to turn us—and everything—Godward...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Jesus Is Coming—So Be Joyful!

(A sermon based on Luke 3:7-18 & Philippians 4:4-7 for the Third Sunday of Advent.)

The candle of joy is now burning on the Advent wreath.

But how can we talk about joy in light of what has happened this week?

That is the question that has haunted me since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on Friday.

Then another question occurred to me: how can we talk about joy in light of what happens every week? While the deaths at Sandy Hook are shocking and heart-rending, especially when we consider the deaths of so many children, the truth is that many violent deaths occur every week. There were 14,612 murders in the United States in 2011; that averages out to 281 per week.

All tragedies are not due to violence, though. For example, some five million children in developing countries die each year due to malnutrition.

This is not even to mention the many public and private tragedies, the innumerable “little deaths,” that so many of us bear in our daily lives; it is not to mention all the people who are dying of a broken heart.

Some of you may be thinking, “I can’t believe he’s talking about such depressing things just nine days before Christmas!” Lutheran pastor Peter Marty told of a Christmas night service during which he spoke in his sermon of the recent murder of a young boy in Trenton, New Jersey. Following the service, a woman walked up to him and said, “I will never set foot in this church again.” Her reason, she said, was the inappropriateness of mentioning murdered children in a Christmas sermon. And, Marty said, she has kept her work; she has never come back. (Peter W. Marty, “Christmas Unvarnished”, Christian Century, December 12, 2012, p. 10)

Perhaps she had never read her Bible, either, since the murder of the children of Bethlehem is part of the story of the birth of Christ.

Friends, the coming of Jesus into the world was not, is not, and will never be anything other than a real life, real world event. The Church is not Fantasy Land and Christians do not live in Paradise; we are in the real world with its real tragedies and its real pains. It was into such a world that Jesus came.

We rightly love the words that the angel spoke to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy”; in our minds we hear Linus reciting the words in A Charlie Brown Christmas and we get a nice warm feeling, which is all well and good. But let’s remember that those shepherds were religious and social outcasts living in an occupied land; even after they went to visit the Christ Child they were religious and social outcasts living in an occupied land.

The difference for the shepherds was that they lived the rest of their lives knowing that God had come to them and that God was with them, all the time and no matter what. While there is no record of it, I would stake my life on my belief that it was, for them, enough.

We would do well to remember that those beautiful words of Paul that jar us so in light of Sandy Hook—“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”—were written from his prison cell during an incarceration that may well have culminated in his death, a death that resulted directly from his faithfulness to the Lord. Paul knew about having joy in the real and dangerous world.

Perhaps the better question to ask is, “How can we not talk about joy at a time like this?” Indeed, how can we not talk about—and live—in joy all the time? How can we not share joy all the time?

The joy we have to talk about, to live in, and to share is the joy of presence. There’s been a saying on some church signs lately that makes a good point; it goes something like “Christmas is not about the ‘presents’; it’s about the ‘presence.’” God has come to us in Jesus Christ. God will come to us in Jesus Christ. God does come to us in Jesus Christ.

How do we go about living in that joy?

First, we give ourselves over to God, in the sense of knowing that God is there with us and for us. We are never alone.

Second, we give ourselves over to other people, in the sense of being there with them and for them. We can make sure that they are never alone.

Right after telling us to rejoice always, Paul said, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Such gentleness is a caring concern that does what it can for the good of other people. When people asked John the Baptist what they should do in light of his warnings of God’s judgment, John told them to think more of others than they did of themselves and to treat people fairly.

That’s how we live in joy: by sharing our lives with others. Having joy comes down to knowing the God is present with us and in us; living in joy comes down to sharing ourselves with each other. God has given God’s love to us. God’s love is more than enough if we share it; it is never enough if we don’t.

Writer Anne Lamott, reflecting on the Connecticut tragedy, said,

I also remembered a conversation I had with my Jesuit friend Tom Weston during a bleak, cold, excruciating Advent day, three years ago, that I wrote up in Some Assembly Required. Here is some of what we talked about, which I am finding helpful today:

Where, I asked that day in 2009, in such despair and chaos, is Advent?

He tried to wiggle out of it by saying, “You Protestants and your little questions!”

Then he said: “Faith is a decision. Do we believe we are ultimately doomed…and there’s no way out? Or that god and goodness makes a difference? There is heaven, community and hope—and hope that there is life beyond the grave.”

“But Tom, at the same time, the grave is very real, dark and cold and lonely.”

“Advent is not for the naïve. Because in spite of the dark and cold, we see light—you look up, or you make light, with candles, trees. And you give light. Beauty helps, in art and nature and faces. Friends help. Solidarity helps. If you ask me, when people return phone calls, it’s about as good as it gets. And who knows beyond that?”

Advent says that there is a way out of this trap—that we embrace our humanity, and Jesus’s humanity, and then we remember that he is wrapped up in God. It’s good to know where to find Jesus—in the least of these--among the broken, the very poor and marginalized. Jesus says, ‘You want to see me? Look there.’

So after talking to Tom that day, I did notice the beautiful, deciduous tree-lined streets of Marin, CGI-level flame-colored autumn leaves. Two towns over, I saw a dozen snowy egrets in what must have been a very delicious meadow by the side of the road, and I had enough sense to pull over and sit and watch them eat for awhile.

I called Tom yesterday as soon as I heard about the shootings. Neither of us said anything interesting, but we hung out together on the phone and listened to each other's voices, and grieved for the families of Newtown, and that helped. These tiny bits of connection to the broken are very real, and the kindness and attention people show to one another create a tiny bit of light. That’s Advent.
(!/AnneLamott?fref=ts, downloaded December 15, 2012)

“Advent is not for the naïve.” Jesus comes to us in the real, hard world. When we show love to others, a bit of light shines in the darkness.

For some reason, I’m thinking about children’s songs today.

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”

“I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart.”

One day, God will fix it; for now, God loves. We can’t fix it now or ever; so for now—and from now on—let’s love.

O God, let the light, the love, and the joy show in the places we look for you, in the way we live in the world, and in the ways we treat other people….

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Jesus is Coming—So Look!

(A sermon based on Luke 1:68-79 & Philippians 1:3-11 for the Second Sunday of Advent)

Perhaps you have had an experience similar to mine. I will be asked by my good wife, “Did you see such and such on such and such television show?” I will reply, “No.” And she will say, “But you were sitting right there when it was on.”

There are several possible explanations for that recurring phenomenon. First, perhaps I was dozing. Second, perhaps I was paying attention to something else, like my iPad. Third, and most likely, perhaps I was watching but not seeing; my eyes were open and even pointed in the right direction but my mind and heart were not engaged in what was on the screen.

It’s amazing what you can miss when you aren’t paying attention, when you are not fully present in the moment. If we aren’t careful, we might even miss what God is up to in Jesus Christ—even during this most wonderful time of the year.

That’s ironic because the ability to see what is important is one of the great gifts that can be ours in Jesus Christ. As a matter of fact, the ability to see, period, is a great gift that can be ours in Jesus.

Zechariah saw but he didn’t see and because he didn’t see he became unable to speak.

Zechariah was a priest who was married to Elizabeth who a descendant of Aaron, Israel’s original priest. Zechariah and Elizabeth were good and faithful people. One day when Zechariah was serving in the temple the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that Elizabeth, who was advanced in years and had been unable to bear children, would bear a son that they would name John who would prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. When Zechariah expressed disbelief—he saw but didn’t see, he heard but didn’t believe—Gabriel told him that he would be unable to speak until the child was born. When their son was born and Zechariah affirmed that he was to be named John, as the angel had instructed, he got his voice back; the first thing he that came out of his mouth was the prophetic praise of our text.

Zechariah said that God had shown favor to God’s people by sending a Savior from the house of David, thereby keeping the promises that had been made to Abraham, the great ancestor of Israel. Zechariah furthermore proclaimed that the son that had been born to Elizabeth and him would be the prophet who would proclaim forgiveness of sins and prepare the way for the Savior.

Zechariah furthermore said that the Savior was coming who would, like the dawn’s sun that drives away the night’s darkness, drive away the darkness of sin and the shadow of death that hound and confound us. Because of the light of the Savior we would be able to walk in the way of peace, of wholeness and well-being with God and with others. He shows us the way.

And what is that way that he will show us, that he will make visible to us? It is the way of love. Paul puts it very well in his prayer for the Philippian Christians: “This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9-11). We can love more and more in wiser and wiser ways. We can look for ways that Jesus would have us to love. We can and should always be looking for ways to love and to grow in love.

Some of our beloved stories of the season teach us of the power of love. For example, there is Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch That Stole Christmas that tells of the mean old Grinch who lived on the mountain up above Whoville and who hated the Whos’ celebration of Christmas so much that one year he decided to steal it and so on Christmas Eve he took all of their Christmas decorations and gifts. Then, so the story goes,

"Pooh-pooh to the Whos!" he was grinch-ish-ly humming.
"They're finding out now that no Christmas is coming!
"They're just waking up! I know just what they'll do!
"Their mouths will hang open a minute or two
"The all the Whos down in Who-ville will all cry BOO-HOO!"

"That's a noise," grinned the Grinch,
"That I simply must hear!"
So he paused. And the Grinch put a hand to his ear.
And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.
It started in low. Then it started to grow...

But the sound wasn't sad!
Why, this sound sounded merry!
It couldn't be so!
But it WAS merry! VERY!

He stared down at Who-ville!
The Grinch popped his eyes!
Then he shook!
What he saw was a shocking surprise!

Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN'T stopped Christmas from coming!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
"It came without packages, boxes or bags!"
And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.
"Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"

And what happened then...? Who-ville they say
That the Grinch's small heart
Grew three sizes that day!
And the minute his heart didn't feel quite so tight,
He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light
And he brought back the toys! And the food for the feast!

The Grinch carved the roast beast!

Love caused the Grinch’s heart to grow and he showed that love by making amends, by righting wrongs, and by sharing life with the people around him. I’m not saying that the Grinch became a Christian; I’m just saying that the story shows us the power of love.

This weekend we are sharing in our church’s production of A Christmas Carol. In that marvelous story, Ebenezer Scrooge’s life is changed by the nocturnal visit of three spirits, but really it is love that changes him.

What changed Scrooge was the light that shone into his darkness and what that light showed him was love. And then that light of love showed him how to live in love, how to give and serve and help.

Just think, then, of what a difference the love of God—the love seen in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—can and will make in our lives, particularly if we are on the lookout for ways to share it and to grow in it.

It won’t happen all at once, but we can be growing toward it a little bit every day. We’re a bit like those compact fluorescent bulbs that start dim and get brighter; the light of love starts out dim in us but becomes brighter and brighter and brighter as we live and love.

The light of the world is Jesus. You all are the light of the world. So look for the light. And let your light shine…