Monday, December 23, 2013

What is your favorite Christmas Movie?

Advent 4, Year A, 2013, All Saints’ (Matthew 1:18-25)
What is your favorite Christmas movie?  I imagine you have several.  I asked this same question to all my Facebook friends last week and what I discovered was really fascinating.  I found out that people are really invested in their Christmas movies, people would fight over their favorite movies.  It was unreal.  I must have received close to 100 responses.  I even heard from people who I haven’t seen or talked to in years. 
I also learned that I haven’t even watched a quarter of the Christmas movies out there such as Ernest Saves Christmas (don’t plan on seeing that one), Joyeux Noel, the 1964 edition of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  And who knew that Die Hard with Bruce Willis was a Christmas movie?
Of course the classics were all mentioned, White Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Charlie Brown’s Christmas.  Some romantic comedies were named, The Family Stone and Love Actually.  And my personal favorites all received a lot of mention, Home Alone, Elf, and Christmas Vacation.
I believe one of the reasons why we love our Christmas movies so much is because on some level they speak so much to our own experience with Christmas.  We all know what it is like for the Christmas season to fall short of expectations and none of these moves describe the “perfect” Christmas.  All of these stories name the disappointments, failures, and let downs of the Christmas season. 
Rudolph got made fun of because he looked different.  Little “Ralphie” Parker gets hit in the face with a snowball.  Kevin McAllister, an 8 year old boy, got left home alone for Christmas.  I imagine none of you were left home alone for Christmas, but I think many of you know what it is like to feel alone during the holidays.  Liam Neeson’s character Daniel grieves the loss of his wife.  And for Clark Griswold, everything that could go wrong goes wrong.
However, these Christmas stories don’t end with the disappointments.  Something unexpected happens.  Joy is experienced in the most ordinary places like at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas morning.  And in order for Clark Griswold to get his Christmas vacation cousin Eddie has to kidnap somebody, something scandalous has to happen. 
In other words, joy and hope are born out of the unexpected, out of the ordinary, and even out of the scandalous.  This sounds a lot like another Christmas story we know, doesn’t it?  It sounds like it because that other story is the first Christmas story, it is THE Christmas story.
I know we haven‘t technically celebrated Christmas yet, at least not on this side of the road (see image).  However, on the 4th Sunday of Advent we begin reading the infancy narrative of Jesus.  And this year we get to hear about the sparsely mentioned Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, and his role in the most wonderful Christmas story ever told. 
What is Joseph’s story?  We know that Joseph is a descendant of Abraham and David as the writer of Matthew spills a lot of ink tracing his genealogy (check out Matthew 1:1-17).  For the readers of Matthew, it is critical that Jesus follow the line of Abraham to David to Joseph in order to fulfill what scripture says how the world will receive its Messiah.  But there is a problem. 
As we learn from today’s story, Joseph isn’t Jesus’ biological father.  The child was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Disaster is averted because the angel tells Joseph to name the child Jesus.  And because Joseph names the child he is legally the father.
There is another peculiarity with the genealogy of Jesus.  Four women are listed.  Typically, only the man’s name is used.  For example, verse 6 says, “And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah (who is Bathsheba).”  This is important because it gives us a clue into what God is up to here.  If you remember, King David had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed so he could be with her.  Subsequently, David and Bathsheba gave birth to Solomon who continued the Messianic line. 
The mention of Bathsheba should tip the readers off that God is in the business of making good out of the most unlikely of circumstances.  This is our first clue as to how God is introducing the Messiah into the world.  This is our first clue that God is executing His plan of rescue for the world outside of the safety of social norms or conventions. 
Joseph is a man who is accustomed to operating within the boundaries of social norms and structures.  Scripture says he is a righteous man.  He knew that he would not be able to conceive a child with his wife until marriage.  And so this righteous man is faced with a dilemma when he learns that his betrothed is expecting a child without his knowledge. 
Quietly divorcing Mary, in Joseph’s estimation, is his best option.  He wants to do this quietly to try and protect Mary from public disgrace.  In other words, Joseph doesn’t air his family’s dirty laundry on the Jerry Springer show.  He is a righteous man and respects the dignity of other human beings.
So here we are at the critical point of the story—the moment of decision.  Will Joseph stick with social law and norms?  Will he carry on his plan to dismiss Mary quietly and avoid social humiliation?  Or will he listen to the call of God to go against the grain and remain committed to Mary?
For those who know the story of God, it comes as no surprise that Joseph remains committed to Mary because when God says something is going to happen in scripture it happens—it might take a detour, it might take awhile—but it always happens.  Joseph goes against the grain because God asks him to.  God’s Word is the most important word in Joseph’s life.
This is the beginning of the greatest story ever told not only because of what Joseph did but because of what God did.  God intervenes into our world in an unpredictable and unexpected way.  In this case, God makes Himself known through a social scandal.  The story of Christmas begins with a scandal—Joseph marries a woman who is pregnant outside of bonds of marriage.  The story of Christmas begins unexpectedly in a manger in Bethlehem and the story starts with two ordinary, yet incredibly faithful people—Mary and Joseph.
The story of Christmas was lived out in a small way last Saturday.  About 60 children whose parents are incarcerated gathered for a party.  Some of these children are lucky enough to live with family members.  Others live in foster care programs.  Needless to say, these are not who we would typically invite to a holiday party.  But those children and our children played together.  They made cookies together.  They sat on Santa’s lap together.  They heard the story of Christmas together.
For those two hours the hope of Christmas was visible in the world today.  It wasn’t a big fancy party but it was thrown with great love.  Small children, including my own child, were terrified of Santa Claus but at least we got a free picture!  Children interrupted the Christmas story again and again but the Christmas story was still told and heard.  None of it was perfect by human standards but God made it perfect through the love of Jesus who was born in an ordinary, unexpected, and even scandalous way.     
The Gospel lesson for today and the season of Advent tune our hearts to be ready to receive our Savoir when he breaks into our lives in unpredictable ways.  I will remember this Advent for how God intervened in my life in an unexpected way.  A day after Thanksgiving my grandfather had a massive stroke and eventually was released to hospice care and died this past Wednesday. 
We have a big family so all of my aunts were here to hold vigil in his last days.  I was able to get to know my aunts in a way I never have before.  I will be forever grateful for that opportunity for many reasons.  Above all, it was a reminder that God takes even the bleakest of circumstances and gives us hope and joy.  I wonder how God is giving you hope in the most unexpected places? 
I don’t think I would have seen the incarnation of God’s love in Christ at the Angel Tree Party or in the days leading up to my grandfather’s death if I was looking for joy and hope in the big and fancy, if I was looking for joy and hope in the perfect and pristine.  God’s love is about breaking into the messiness of our lives so that we may see the wonders of his love. 
The season of Advent calls us to look for God not in the grandiose and ostentatious, but in the ordinary, in the unexpected, and even the scandalous.  Finding God in this way may be surprising hear but God’s story of grace and love is surprising.  Today, God surprises us again and tells Joseph to take Mary as his bride even though the Jewish law forbids it.  And as the story goes on the surprises only get better and better.  Amen.     

Monday, December 2, 2013

who is the homeless man on the side of the road?

            November was Fight Hunger Month at All Saints'.  One of the initiatives included partnering with Community Kitchen’s in their Recipe to Fight Hunger.  The idea was simple.  Pack a sack lunch and include information about Community Kitchens on the bag.  Then take the sack lunch and give it to someone who is hungry, wherever they are.  While I do believe these bags are a recipe to fight hunger, I believe even more so these bags are a recipe to experience the kingdom of God.
I have heard many wonderful stories.  All of the stories included how you saw someone in a new way.  After the initial awkwardness of the encounter, you told me how you connected with the person who received the gift.  You said something like, we made eye contact, we exchanged a handshake, we parted with a hug, we introduced ourselves, and we called each other by name.
In these moments, particularly when you called each other by name, Jesus’ kingdom was revealed.  That person was no longer the homeless man at the corner of Lakeshore and 280.  Instead, they were Bob or Tracy or Joe.  You were no longer called the jerk that refused to make eye contact on your way home from work.  Instead, you were Debbie or Emily or Parker.  Both of you were called by the name that Jesus calls you by. 
In Christ’s kingdom, we are defined by our Heavenly Father who calls us each by name and declares that we belong to his kingdom and not the kingdoms of this world.  When Christ is our King, we are not defined by our sins.  Instead, we are defined children of God because of what Christ our King did at the place called The Skull.

This reflection is taken from my sermon preached on Christ the King Sunday.  See full text below.

Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday, Year C, 2013, All Saints’ (Find Readings here)

                Legend has it that only the true king would be able to pull the sword called Excalibur from the stone and this would be a sign of his divine election.  We know the rest of the story.  It was Arthur who drew Excalibur from the stone and it was Arthur who became king.  While this story is likely only a story, this was King Arthur’s defining moment.  This is a story full of magic, a story of greatness.
                Another story of a popular king goes like this.  Before he was even king, a boy named David responded to King Saul’s promise for a reward to anyone who could bring down Goliath.  Goliath was a beast of a man and was the leader of the hated Philistine army.  Nobody wanted to face Goliath, not even King Saul himself.  However, the young and fearless David volunteered.   
David did not have advanced weaponry but he did have a sling shot.  He gathered five smooth stones as ammunition but it turns out he only needed one stone.  David pulled the sling shot behind his ear and let the stone fly.  It was a direct hit and Goliath went down like a sack of potatoes.  David defeated Goliath.  This was David’s defining moment.  It is a story that foresees David as a great military leader that would take down the Philistine army.  David’s kingship was defined by a powerful army that kept the enemy at bay.
There is another king whose defining moment was significantly different than Arthur and David’s.  This king’s defining moment did not involve magic.  This king’s moment of decision did not involve bringing down the enemy with military action.  In fact, this king’s defining moment included a call to put down the sword.  This king’s moment of truth let the enemy army do its worst.
This king’s story of victory came at a place called The Skull.  This is where Jesus hangs next to two criminals, one on his right and one on his left.  Here we have a man who always looked after the poor and outcast, who touched and healed the untouchable, who fed thousands with only a few pieces of bread and a couple of fish, who drew massive crowds because he talked about hope and new life, who made even the wind and water obey, who followed the will of his Father in heaven at every turn. 
Here we have a man who was perfect in every way, a man who is innocent, hanging next to two criminals.  Even the criminal knows this as he says, “for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  On some level, everyone involved knew this man was innocent. 
Jesus had every opportunity to protest this charge.  He had every right to tell the crowd that his sentence of execution was unjust.  But he didn’t.  Instead, he looked out over the people and said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”  Jesus had all the power in the world to save himself.  The criminal knew this, “If you are the Messiah of God, save yourself!”  But he didn’t.  Instead, he looked at the other criminal and said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” 
So what is Jesus’ charge?  What is Jesus’ guilty of?  Jesus is guilty for being the “King of the Jews.”  While the Jewish leaders in this story don’t want Jesus as king, while the Roman authorities give Jesus this title of king as a way of mocking him, we call Jesus King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  Jesus might not be the king that was expected, Jesus might not be the king that was wanted, but Jesus is the king that we get.  Better yet, Jesus is the king that the world needs.
For the same reasons Jesus is found guilty are the same reasons why Jesus is exalted by his Father in heaven.  This execution is no accident.  In order for God’s plan of rescue for his people to be completed, Jesus had to die on the cross in the most humiliating way.  And Jesus on the cross is the story of how Christ became king; the story of the cross is this king’s defining moment.  Today on the last Sunday of the church year Christian churches everywhere celebrate the festival of Christ the King.  And as you know by now, Jesus is unlike any king we have and will ever know. 
Jesus’ kingship is different because Jesus’ kingdom is different.  What Jesus does on the cross shows us what kind of king he is and what kind of kingdom he is king over.  Jesus’ kingdom is not about saving oneself.  Instead, Jesus’ kingdom is about saving others.  His kingdom is not about repaying evil with evil.  Instead, it is about repaying evil with good.  Jesus’ kingdom is not about self-justification.  Instead, Jesus’ kingdom is about forgiveness and mercy. 
A couple of stories come to mind that have painted the picture of what Jesus’ kingdom looks like for me in recent days.  Many of you have participated in the Community Kitchen’s recipe to fight hunger by handing out sack lunches to those who are hungry.  While I do believe these bags are a recipe to fight hunger, I believe even more so these bags are a recipe to experience the kingdom of God.
Several of you have shared your story and there have been a lot of wonderful stories.  Most of your stories start out by naming the fact that the encounter starts out a little awkwardly.  Eventually, you tell me how you connected with the person who received the gift.  You say something like, we made eye contact, we exchanged a handshake, we parted with a hug, we introduced ourselves and we called each other by name.
In these moments when you called each other by name, Jesus’ kingdom was revealed.  That person was no longer the homeless man at the corner of Lakeshore and 280.  Instead, they were Bob or Tracy or Joe.  You were no longer called the jerk that refused to make eye contact on your way home from work.  Instead, you were Debbie or Emily or Parker.  Both of you were called by the name that Jesus calls you by. 
In Christ’s kingdom, we are defined by our Heavenly Father who calls us each by name and declares that we belong to his kingdom and not the kingdoms of this world.  When Christ is our King, we are not defined by our sins but promised new life in a world where we are all lifted up and defined children of God.
  Another example of Jesus’ kingdom happened after someone asked me if Jesus commands us to forgive ourselves.  I could tell that the person had been thinking about his for a long time.  I knew this wasn’t a case of someone trying to forgive themselves because they stole candy from the candy shop in 5th grade.
                I was honest in my response when I said, “I’m not sure.  I can’t think of where Jesus specifically says that we must forgive ourselves.”  I told this person that I imagine that we all have things that we struggle to forgive ourselves for.  We all carry around things that we are ashamed of, that we all wish we could go back and fix moments in our lives when we screwed up.  We all know what it is like to be our biggest critic. We are all a little more like the criminal than we would like to admit.
                Knowing this about ourselves, I imagine that many of us have done things that we cannot possibly forgive ourselves for.  There are certainly things that others have done that seem unforgiveable, at least by human standards.  So what do we do in these places of total despair? 
We can look at Christ our King, who hangs victorious on the cross.  We can look to Jesus there on the cross in all the shame and humiliation that has been cast upon him and hear him say to us, “I am not ashamed of you.”  We can look to Jesus who hangs there innocently and receive his promise of mercy when he says, “Your sins are forgiven.”     
When we look at Christ our King on the cross, we realize that not only is it his defining moment, not only was it a defining moment for the criminal who repented, but it is our defining moment.  It is a defining moment for us because what Christ does on the cross is for the benefit of the whole world.  Like the criminal, we are promised a place in Paradise.  Paradise doesn’t look like what you might think Paradise looks like.  Jesus isn’t talking about crystal blue water and white sandy beaches.  The kind of Paradise that Jesus is talking about isn’t limited to those with means and wealth but to all who Christ our King serves.
Jesus is talking about a Paradise where we are forgiven as Jesus forgave the criminal who repented.  Jesus is talking about a place where our sins don’t define who we are but a place where Jesus, our king, defines who we are and what we will be.  Best of all, he is talking about a place that we can experience today.  Unlike the other kings and rulers of this world, Jesus promises are available today, not tomorrow or next year or next election cycle, but today.
Christ our King has a created for us a kingdom that we could never create for ourselves.  He has made for us a world where strength comes not from world domination but from helping others first, from repaying evil with good, from valuing the dignity of every human being, from showing mercy and compassion, and from seeking and serving the victorious Christ our King in all people no matter what their name is.  Amen.