Wednesday, December 27, 2017

From Magic to Mystery: A Christmas Sermon

As a young child, Christmas was always the most magical time of the year. The lights downtown, the decorations in the mall, the carols on the radio, the pageant preparations, the parties, the good food, the Advent calendars, the weather reports about Santa and his sleigh all filled me with an excitement I could hardly contain. I would sometimes stop and wonder, “Is this real life?” “Am I living in another dimension?”
Obviously, over the years, the magic of Christmas dissipated. I got older. Family life got more complicated. The magic of it all wasn’t powerful enough to hold my attention anymore. However, that magic has recently been reignited as I see my children, especially Mary Katherine, experience the Christmas season. 
            Mary Katherine has taken it upon herself to plug in the Christmas tree in the morning. She makes sure to count down the days using the Nutcracker Advent calendar. For her, it truly is the most wonderful time of the year.
            But as magical as this time of year is for so many, it can make the vulnerable even more vulnerable. A multi-billion-dollar industry has been built around Christmas – the toys, the gifts, the decorations, the cards, the food, the wine, and the list goes on. In a way, the pursuit of a magical Christmas creates a bigger chasm between the haves and have nots.
            Not that I’m a “have not” by any means, but I do live across the street from Gus Colvin - the Chevy Chase of Selma. And every year I’m reminded that his exterior illumination is better than my exterior illumination. And so does Mary Katherine. 
           On a somewhat more serious note, as a young boy, I dreaded going back to school and sharing with the class what I got for Christmas. It’s not that I didn’t get a lot of great toys. I grew up in a very privileged family. However, there were others in my class who were even more privileged than me, who got bigger and better toys than me. 
           So, in a very small way, I know the experience of not getting what others got. In a very small way, I was forced to ask questions like, “Am I less special because my parents don’t have as much money as his parents?” I know this might seem a little trivial but the experience was very real for me and real for many other children in more significant ways.
          As magical as Christmas was and still is, what kind of message are we sending to the world when Christmas is reduced to the plot line of Christmas Vacation?   Don’t get me wrong. The movie is a favorite of mine. 
          But how is that message consistent or inconsistent with the message that God is sending? To sort out this question we must return to the original message, the message of salvation that the angels announce to the shepherds tending their flocks by night.
          First and foremost, we must remember that the first Christmas was not a celebration that the privileged took part in. The first Christmas didn’t take place in the suburbs of Chicago but on the rural outskirts of Jerusalem. It did l, however, feature a dysfunctional family which was is part of the good news of this night.  
         The message of salvation on Christmas is told through ordinary people who are living pay check to pay check. The message of salvation is told through a couple who doesn’t have access to a hospital bed. The message of salvation is born out of the most vulnerable of circumstances. As Paul says to the Corinthians, “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”
         As I have grown older, it isn’t the magic of Christmas that holds my attention but the mystery of God being born to a lowly mother in a stable in Bethlehem which makes my heart grow in awe and wonder. For in this mystery, we discover a truth that money cannot buy, we discover a place where all - rich and poor alike - have a seat at the king’s table, we find a love that takes us to another dimension, a new world.
        Except this other world is real, this other world lasts. This other world isn’t a fairytale. It doesn’t depend on a Christmas bonus. This new world reveals God’s heavenly reality established on earth. It is a world that depends on a God who pays the ultimate price to save us - the gift of his only Son.
       This heavenly reality starts to become real in our lives and our communities when we search for God’s Son among the vulnerable, the poor, and the lowly - in all the proverbial managers of Bethlehem. This reality starts to become real when we take our place in God’s new story of salvation and lay our gifts, not at the feet of the rich and famous, but at the feet of the weak and helpless, at the feet of the infant Jesus lying in a humble manger.
       Over the past few weeks, you at St. Paul’s have been a part of the new story that God writes in Jesus on Christmas.  You have laid gifts at the feet of the Christ child. You adopted 40 angels, most of whom were provided by the Family Resource Center. In particular, you gave Christmas gifts to children who are represented by the Dallas County CASA program. You also provided 8 food boxes for the elderly who are a part of the Meals on Wheels program. And not to mention the outreach you do during the other 11 months of the year through places like the Food Pantry. 
       You remind some of the most vulnerable among us that they too are special, that they, in fact, are the essential part of the Christmas message, that they too have a place at the King’s table. Ultimately, your service to the vulnerable should remind us all that without Angel Tree or Meals on Wheels or the Food Pantry, the true message of Christmas wouldn’t be sent to the world – at least not the Christmas message that God makes known through the Christ child. 
        Now, I hope you don’t hear me saying to stop participating in the magic of Christmas. I’m not advocating you stop watching Christmas Vacation.  In fact, the very figure behind “secular” Christmas is an excellent example of someone who understood what this time of year is all about.
       St. Nicholas is known for paying particular attention to the poor especially children who were poor.  He gave anonymously and generously. His witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ is a powerful reminder that true joy is found when the poor and lowly are given hope and light in a fearful and lonely world. For if there is hope for even the least among us, there is hope for the rest of us. 
       As we leave church on this Christmas Eve, many of you will be fortunate enough to experience the magic of Christmas. Be thankful and enjoy it. But also remember that some will not know the magic in Christmas this year. The good news, however, is that there is something greater to be discovered this night – there is even something greater to be shared - the mystery of God’s love as told through the birth of our Savior. 
      The Nativity of Jesus is a story that has the power to transform every heart – a mystery that grows out of the most vulnerable of circumstances, a mystery that invites us to grow in the truth that salvation is found in the very places the world would rather forget, a mystery that even Cousin Eddie can grasp (he’s on Crescent Hill). 
      May the same Love that Mary treasured and pondered in her heart some 2,000 years ago be born in your heart this night. And may the mystery of that Love convince you more and more that you and everyone else are God’s beloved child through Christ the newborn King. Merry Christmas and Amen.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

They say, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” While this might be true for a number of people, especially children, this time of year is extremely difficult for many.  Most of us will experience some kind of financial stress and hardship. Even more, this time of year is especially rough on those who have lost a loved one.
I know from personal experience that it is difficult to grieve during the holiday season, at least openly. We are expected to show up to all the parties with a smile on our faces. We feel pressure to say, “I’m fine, thanks for asking.” However, we are secretly falling apart on the inside. We secretly want to crawl into bed and wake up next year.
I remember well the first Christmas following the death of my father. I was seventeen years old and my twin sisters were sixteen. My mother, who was known for being sentimental, created space for us to deal with our grief that Christmas.
She asked us to write letters to our dad telling him what we missed most about having him around. When we were finished with our letters, we put them in Dad’s stocking, and they were to be read on Christmas Eve.  While I don’t remember what anyone said specifically, I do remember how we were all reduced to tears.
In a real way, this experience helped our family acknowledge our grief so we could get on with the Christmas celebration. At the very least, we didn’t have to walk around feeling so alone in our grief. Even more, we could live with the hope that God will turn our “wailing into dancing.” Psalm 30 goes on to say, “weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.”  
In these moments of hidden grief, I am reminded of the tomb of Jesus Christ. As scripture tells us, the tomb of Jesus Christ is sealed and guarded by Roman soldiers.  Likewise, we are often convinced to seal and guard our tomb of sorrows with defense mechanisms, with smiles, and with platitudes. We are terrified of what might happen if someone sees our broken heart.
However, as the empty tomb tells us, only when our tomb of sorrows is opened and shared in the light will there be an opportunity for weeping to turn into joy. Jesus, the one who gave his heart and his life to us, emerged on the third day to tell us once and for all that our hearts won’t say locked up in grief forever. There is hope. There will always be hope.

During this holiday season, pay attention to your grief; pay attention to the grief of others. Chances are you are not alone. Look for ways to create space in your home where others can share their grief in ways that help everyone get on with the celebration of Christmas. In the end, pay attention to how God is turning your wailing into dancing in the most unexpected and unpredictable ways for there you will find the most wonderful gift of all.   

Monday, December 11, 2017

Waking Up From Déjà Vu

          Over the last couple of months, I’ve been watching the PBS documentary on the Vietnam War. The documentary is difficult to watch and can’t imagine what it is like to watch for those who actually lived through the hell of that war. However, I feel the need to be informed because it reminds me of just how devastating the human will can be when it seeks to win, to be right, to be justified no matter the cost.   
            In the same vein, watching the documentary allowed me to further shatter the myth “if you don’t remember your history, you are bound to repeat it.” After all, in the first episode called Déjà Vu, the United States was fighting the same war the French fought just a generation earlier. In my estimation, no amount of remembering or not remembering will save us from repeating the same mistakes again and again.
            Now, I’m not saying that we can’t learn from our mistakes. However, I am saying that learning from our mistakes will not save us. Learning from our mistakes can aid us along but eventually the human will, especially when intoxicated by pride and fear and self-justification, will devolve into a destructive force.
            In today’s gospel lesson, John the Baptist calls the people to remember their history, the history of Israel – one that unravels again and again through human sin.  John recalls the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The Baptist is recalling a piece of Hebrew scripture that announced the good news of the coming of a Savior. Isaiah was announcing that better times were ahead for the people of Israel.
            However, 400 years have passed since this announcement. While the people of Israel have long since been exiled from Babylon, their land is occupied by the Roman Empire. As you might imagine, things are a mess in Jerusalem. The scene is not too unlike the global scene during the Vietnam War.
            To better understand the context of John’s announcement in Mark’s gospel we should remember that Mark was writing around 70 A.D. around the time the temple in Jerusalem fell. In 69 A.D., the Emperor Nero died and the Roman Empire saw a number of assassinations on successive Emperors.
Meanwhile in Jerusalem, Jewish zealots are waging war against Roman occupation. Other Jews in Jerusalem are urging the people to just submit to Rome because at least they would keep them safe. And some of the Jewish elite are serving as puppet leaders for the Roman Empire.  
Ultimately, the people of Israel are more divided than they have ever been. The days are numbered for the nation of Israel. They are on the brink of being overrun by another foreign country. Even more, the supposed Savior, Jesus of Nazareth, has come and gone. Forty years have passed since Jesus was executed by the Roman government on a cross at the urging of the religious authorities.
Therefore, Mark wastes no time announcing the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And this good news is remarkably different than any of the propaganda that they are used to hearing.
The good news they are accustomed to hearing comes from Caesar who promises peace and stability in the region by increased military force via tax hikes. This isn’t good news from the Jewish zealots who expect another King David figure who will drive the enemy out of the land by lethal force.
Instead, the good news of Jesus begins with a call to repentance. The beginning of the good news isn’t about a call to arms. The beginning of the good news is about a call to turn away from violence, a call to turn toward humility and non-violence through Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
God is ushering in a new era, a new way of living, a new way of being through Christ and it starts by preparing the way through repentance, by preparing a highway for our God, by making room for a history rooted not in what we have done or left undone but by what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do to redeem history by the coming of his Father’s kingdom on earth.
And our participation in God’s kingdom, in God’s redeemed history begins when we repent, when we stop being informed by the false propaganda of the world and live toward the eternal truth of God through the good news of Jesus Christ.
Whether you lived in 70 A.D. or during the Vietnam War or even today, what you see on the local newswire is human history is repeating itself. Every generation is déjà vu all over again. Every generation begs to answer the question, “When will the violence and war and corruption stop?”
While my guess is as good as yours as to when it will stop, I do know, as the writer of Mark announces, the beginning of the good news, the beginning of the end to violence, war, and corruption starts with repentance, starts with making a highway for our God. While our repentance cannot undo history, our repentance can look to a new history – one redeemed in the Way of Jesus Christ. 
In 1995, Robert McNamara, Defense Secretary during the first part of Vietnam, wrote in a memoir, “We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.” He further wrote, “People don’t want to admit they made mistakes. This is true of the Church, it’s true of companies, it’s true of nongovernmental organizations and it’s certainly true of political bodies.”
As we consider the call to repentance, consider for a minute the damage you’ve done and others have done to you because sins are not confessed. Think of the damage done in this city, in this state, in this country life, in this world all because human beings and institutions refuse to admit they are wrong, that they’ve made mistakes. And this refusal to admit mistakes really does make a mountain out of a molehill.
While we will never be able to stop the molehill’s from popping up, we can look to repentance as a way of stopping the molehill from becoming a mountain. And we have permission to confess our mistakes through a God who chooses to judge us not for the molehills we have made but for who he has made us to be in Jesus Christ– the One who possess a faith that has the power to move mountains.   
As I stated in the beginning, humanity’s need for self-justification is a most powerful and destructive force. This need for self-justification allows us to do the unthinkable all in a vain effort to be right, all in a vain effort to win.
But the good news is that we have a God who is desperately trying to turn this narrative around through the good news of Jesus Christ, news that we claim when we turn away from our need for self-justification and toward God’s desire to justify us through the One who is redeeming history by way of love and forgiveness.
During this Advent season, you are invited to wake up from the nightmare of déjà vu over and over again, you are invited to wake up from the nightmare of humanity’s doomed history by living a life of repentance, a life that brings us out of darkness into light, a life that shows us the dream of God by following the Way of Jesus Christ.

You are invited to participate in a history that is redeemed once and for all through Jesus Christ our Lord – the One who makes the valley’s high, the mountain’s low, the uneven ground level, and the rough places a plain so that all the people together will see the glory of the Lord. Amen.