Saturday, December 23, 2006

Another one for Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve Dec. 24, 2006
Text: Luke

Several years ago, I saw a cartoon in a religious magazine that showed a young boy talking to his
little sister. He was saying:

Now the Shepherds were busy
Washing their socks by night.

It’s an interesting picture, isn’t it?
Several tired and dirty shepherds who,
after a long day watching their flocks,
have finally gotten the sheep settled down for the night.

They have finished their simple supper,
eaten standing up around the fire.
Now they boil a kettle of water
and after removing their work boots,
peel off their dirty, stinking socks.

I imagine them wearing long, white, tube socks,
with reinforced heel and toe,
you know, the ones with a little band of red
or orange around the top.

The shepherds sit back
and stretch their feet out to the fire,
wiggling their toes and massaging their insteps.

Ah, what a relief after a 16 hour day chasing sheep
up rocky hillsides and down dusty roads.
So, they wash and rinse and wring out their socks, propping them on little sticks near the fire to dry
before they stretch out on their blankets
to catch a little sleep.

Just another day - just another night
on a boring job in which every day is
Pretty much like the day that went before.

Suddenly, the sky is filled with a blinding light
and an angel is hovering in the air above them. They quake and shake and hug the ground.
“They were sore afraid.” is one of the great understatements of the Bible.

The angel talks about the Messiah
and a baby and the city of David.
Then a whole choir of angels appears,
singing about peace and love.

And then, the shepherds get up and put on their damp socks and cold shoes and tramp off to Bethlehem to see what all the fuss is about. At least, that’s what I think about when I hear the words Washing their socks by night.

Now, this whole business of thinking about shepherds washing out tube socks by the fire was very helpful for me, because it helped me remember that they were, after all, real, ordinary people like you and me.

Yes, they were ordinary people, going about their ordinary lives in ordinary ways, when something truly extraordinary, extra - ordinary, suddenly intruded and changed their lives forever.

All too often, we fail to remember that most of the people in the Bible were more like us than otherwise. They didn’t spend their days waiting for a prophet to come to town or scanning the horizon for angels.

No, most of them spent most of their time going about the ordinariness of life; going to work, paying bills, cleaning house, gossiping with neighbors, quarreling with the in-laws, worrying about taxes and the girl Junior’s been dating. They went to the Synagogue on the Sabbath and then went home and talked about the Rabbi being long-winded and the sanctuary being too hot. They were a lot like us.

And, just like us, while they were hopeful that next year would be better than last year, or the year before that, they weren’t really expecting things to change, not really. In their heart of hearts they weren’t looking for God to do anything dramatic any time soon.

And yet tonight we gather to celebrate and remember that there came a time when God did act, when God did do something totally unordinary.

God came calling, with trumpets blaring and angels singing and stars in the night. While the shepherds were washing their socks by night, God showed up with a gift.

It was a gift of God’s self, a gift of love and joy and forgiveness, all wrapped up in a very surprising package, a little baby, born in a spare room, sleeping in a feed trough.

Back in the 1870's, the Canadian Pacific Railroad was attempting to build a Transcontinental Railroad across Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In order to get through the area between the towns of Medicine Hat and Calgary in Southern Alberta, the railroad had to negotiate with Chief Crowfoot of the Blackfoot Confederacy.

At the end of the negotiations, the CPR gave Chief Crowfoot a lifetime pass to ride the train. He was very proud of his gift. He put the pass in a leather case around his neck and wore it the rest of his life. He showed it to all the important visitors who came to his village. It is reported that he even used it as collateral for a loan.

There is one thing Chief Crowfoot never used his pass for. He never once used it to ride a train.

We have been given a great gift, the greatest gift of all, the gift of God’s Son, the Christ, Our Savior.
It would be a shame if, after all the effort we go to to celebrate the gift, we failed to properly receive it by letting God’s love and peace and forgiveness go to work in our lives.

It would be sheer folly to celebrate Jesus as the Son of God and yet fail to obey Him when he invites us to take up our Cross and follow.

Yes, God has shown up in the midst of our ordinary lives, shattering our timid normality with his own brazen originality. God has exploded into our lives, and the question is: What are we going to do with this gift?


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Advent IV and Christmas Eve

ADVENT IV Dec. 24, 2006
Micah 5:2-5a, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-55

True story. Margaret was having a tough Christmas season. Her husband was out of town on business for most of December. Her kids were sick half the time, work was driving her crazy with year-end deadlines. Nothing was going right.

About a week before Christmas she did some shopping at the Mall during her lunch owner. She darted into a card store and bought a box of 50 Christmas Cards, already on sale because it was so late.

That night she printed some labels using the computer and put the kids to work. One signed the cards with the family’s last name, a second stuffed the cards into the envelope, a third put on the address lapels and the youngest stuck on the stamps, mostly upside down or sideways; but it got done, just in time.

The day after Christmas, Margaret was cleaning up and found a stray card between the couch cushions. She realized she had been so busy she never even read the card.
And after she did, she wished she hadn’t. She sat down on the couch and cried after she read:

We’re sending this card
just to say,
A little gift
is on its way.

A little gift is on its way. That is the message of the Fourth Sunday of Advent. It’s the message Elizabeth and Zechariah got about John.
It’s the message Joseph and Mary got about Jesus.
And it’s the message we are getting about the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior.

In the midst of our running around and gift-buying and card-sending and house-decorating; we need to pause and remember why we’re doing all this. We’re doing it because God has sent us a message that a little gift is on the way, a little bundle of Joy is coming, a Word of Hope and Peace is just around the corner.

It is a gift and a word that the world needs now as much as ever. A glance at the daily paper, or 30 minutes of watching the news is enough to remind us that the world is all too often a dark, scary and lonely place run by the proud, the rich and the powerful.

And we, like Mary, have been called to carry the gift that is Christ into the midst of that hurting world.

The lowly still need lifting up.
The hungry still need to be fed.
The poor still need a chance to live.
The world still hungers in its heart for true goodness
to reign supreme.

Caroline Hodges lives in Atlanta. She is an active member of an Episcopal Church there, serves on the Vestry and Altar Guild and teaches Sunday School.

A couple of years ago, her Priest asked her to do something more, something extra. The churches in the area were opening a Homeless shelter and they needed a director - would she help?

Although she was already quite busy -she agreed. She went into it with great enthusiasm and high commitment, she wanted to help, she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.
By Christmas Eve, she was quite tired of the whole thing, a little bit jaded and burned out. She had come to see her job as Director of the Shelter as a thankless chore.

When she had begun, she had thought: Give these people a little love and they’ll turn around and soon become useful and productive citizens.

But her high hopes and great expectations had soon turned into impatient resignation and resentment.
These people will never change. They’re all the same. TAKE! TAKE! TAKE! And never give anything.

It was in this mood that she encountered a young man named Christopher. She had gotten everyone bedded down for the night that Christmas Eve, which was a lot like every other night, except that they ha Turkey for dinner instead of soup; and everyone received a Christmas package of soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes from the ladies Auxiliary of Greater Hope Baptist Church.

Caroline had turned out the lights and retreated to the kitchen for a cup of coffee when Christopher came in, wanting to talk. She agreed, nodding her head, but not really interested.

He told her the usual story - the kind of story you hear a hundred times a year if you work with the homeless. His father drank and beat him, his mother slept around. He dropped out at 14 and did a lot of drugs, married at 19 to a woman 36 who was already pregnant. She left him and the baby a little while later, so he gave the baby up for adoption and hit the road.

By this time Caroline was looking at her watch, ready to send the young man back to bed, when suddenly Christopher said,

Caroline jerked her head up. How can he say that? She thought. After all he’s gone through, how can he say that?

YES, Christopher said, God has really blessed me. He let me see the darkness, so I’d recognize the light.
CHRISTOPHER - The name means carrier of Christ. That night, Christopher lived up to his name. He brought the light of Christ to a tired and bitter woman. A woman who learned one more time that God specializes in surprise packages, in coming to us in unlikely places, in speaking to us through unlikely voices.

As Caroline thought about Christopher’s words about light and darkness, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small, worn Bible and from it he took a dried and pressed Monarch butterfly with radiant colors.

Here, he said, Merry Christmas. This is for you. Put it in your Bible and remember that on one cold Christmas Eve you took the time to let your light shine on some tired and lonely people.

The mystery and miracle that is Christmas is just around the corner. Our little gift is on its way. We are called to receive the gift of Christ with glad and joyful hearts and to share the gift of Christ with all the world.

Amen and Amen.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Advent III, December 17, 2006

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3: 7-18

A few years ago I was in Hickory Hollow Mall in Nashville. I had just stepped into the second level elevator when I saw a harried young family coming my way. I held the doors open as they struggled to et in. There was a young man pushing a baby stroller, the child almost hidden in the midst of precariously balanced packages. Mother was struggling with a “wild child” 4 year old.
She practically drug him into the elevator by the arm as he screamed and twisted and cried and kicked and . . .well, you know. As they got in the glass elevator, she put her hand on the back of his head and directed his gaze to santa in the atrium below. She said, “Santa is watching you. Do you want him to see you acting like this?”

The young boy grew very still as he contemplated Santa, then he turned to his mother and said, “I’ll be good as long as he can see me.” And he was. They got out of the elevator and he was a perfect angel. He even nodded and smiled in Santa’s direction. Then, when they got about fifteen feet past Santa, he looked up at his mother, grinned and kicked her in the shin.

So it is with us. Repentance and amendment of life based on fear and punishment are always insincere and short-lived. We have a disease which the LAW (Santa is watching you!) Cannot cure. Our disease goes under many names: self-will, narcissism, hubris, pride, greed, selfishness, sin. It is not so much a matter of the things we do. Those are only the symptoms, the outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual lack of grace.

And any remedy which treats only the symptoms will, in the end, fail to cure us and bring us to wholeness and new life. When the Mom made her appeal to Santa, she placed within her son a fear of losing his Christmas presents. So, he responded appropriately, in a manner calculated to protect his own self-interest. He did not repent, he did not “bear fruit worthy of repentance” He merely changed his behavior in an attempt to fool Santa Claus.

And that’s the way religious Law always works.

Thou Shalt Not Kill may keep us from strangling our enemies, but it does nothing to remove from our hearts the hatred and resentment of others which all too often burns there.

Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor May keep us from telling outright lies and slanders about the people next door, or in the next office, or sitting in the next pew, but it won’t keep us from thinking and believing the worst about them in our most private thoughts.

Law fails because it goes about its work backwards. It treats the symptoms, it changes the behavior, without going to the source, without healing the disease, without changing the heart.

This is why Luke dares to call John’s preaching against insincere and incomplete repentance GOOD NEWS. Did you hear that jarring note at the end of the Gospel Lesson?

After quoting John the Baptist saying harsh things like:

You Brood of vipers, and
The axe is at the root of the tree, and
every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into
the fire. and
His winnowing fork is in his hand and
the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire.

Luke then says quietly, And so, with many other exhortations,
he proclaimed the Good News to the people.

Gee whiz, if that’s the Good News, what’s the Bad News? We think. Where’s the Good News in all that stuff about repentance and burning in endless fires?

Well, it is Good News, it is the Gospel of the LORD.” It is a message to be joyful about. It is good news because John has revealed to us the purpose for all this preparation, John has announced to us WHY CHRIST CAME.

CHRIST CAME to stop the cycle of inco0mplete repentance and temporary solutions to the deepest needs of the human heart.

CHRIST CAME to cut through our feeble attempts to change our own behavior to meet some external standard.

CHRIST CAME to treat the disease, not the symptoms.

CHRIST CAME to break our hearts and change our lives.

CHRIST CAME to show us a new way of dealing with our God, ourselves and each other.

The old way, the way of fear and intimidation, of trying to adjust our live’s to meet external demands rooted in a fear of judgement and reprisal, does not work.

The New Way is God’s Way of Love and Intimacy, of having our hearts broken by the depth and totality of God’s love for us, having our hearts broken so deeply and completely that God can move in and change us from within, from the very core of our being, emptying us of our selfishness and pride and filling us with the gifts of the Spirit and the fire of God’s love.

When THAT happens, our behavior changes without our having to think about it.

Back to that bearing fruit worthy of repentance: just as our sins and misdeeds grew out of the disease of self-will rooted deep in our hearts, as new creatures in Christ, acts of love and kindness will flow from us as naturally as water flows from a spring, or as apples grow on apple trees.

An Apple tree doesn’t have to think about or decide what kind of fruit to have. It doesn’t say to itself, “Should I do pears this year, or maybe go a little tropical and exotic and try oranges or limes.” NO. There is nothing to think about. It’s an apple tree. Apple trees grow apples. End of discussion.

Just so with us, Christians whose hearts have been broken and filled with the Spirit of the Living God. We don’t have to think about doing good, about bearing fruit worthy of repentance. We’re Christians. Doing acts of love and kindness is what we do, it is who we are. It’s nothing to worry about or to brag about; it is simply that which flows out of a heart filled with God.

When my son David, who is now 23, was about 3, he was getting excited about Christmas for the first time. He jabbered about Santa and his Christmas list and about elves and reindeer. Ever the Pastor, I didn’t want him to miss the religious importance of the holiday, so one night, as I was putting him to bed, after going over the Christmas list one more time, and reading “The Night before Christmas” one more time, I said, “Okay David, who’s birthday are we celebrating at Christmas?” And he said, “JESUS” Good,, I thought. “And who is Jesus?” I asked.
“I dunno,” he shrugged, burrowing into his pillow, ready to sleep.

What are we celebrating at Christmas? The birth of Jesus. And who is Jesus, why did he come?

Christ came to turn our lives around, to show us a new way to live, to open up to us the possibility of living our lives in complete freedom, bound only by the constraints of selfless love.

It is not a simple or easy proposition. After all, it cost the Babe of Bethlehem his very life.
That was what was necessary and that is why he came, and that is very Good News indeed.

Amen and amen.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Second Sunday in Advent: December10, 2006

ADVENT II December10, 2006
Text: Malachi 3: 1-4, Luke 1:68-69, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

Dr. Carlyle Marney was Pastor of Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Marney was a very well-known writer and Bible study teacher in the 1960's and 70's.

One time he was teaching at Ridgecrest, the Baptist Assembly up near Asheville. During the question and answer period, one woman asked him, “Dr. Marney, exactly where is the Garden of Eden?” With a twinkle in his eye, Marney replied, “312 Elm Street, Knoxville, TN.”

She said, “Why, that can’t be right, it would have to be somewhere in the Middle East, Iraq or Iran, wouldn’t it?”

He shrugged and said, “Maybe for you, but for me it was 312 Elm Street, Knoxville TN. That’s where I found my mother’s purse open on the kitchen table and took a quarter out of it and walked down to the corner and bought a candy bar and some chewing gum and some hard candy, and I came back up the street and sat on the wall of the cemetery and ate and chewed to my hearts content. And then, as I got home, I heard my mother calling out my name, CARLYLE, CARLYLE WHERE ARE YOU? And instead of answering her, I ran and hid in the closet under the stairs. So, you see, for me, the Garden of Eden was at 312 Elm Street.”
(I don’t have a written source on this story, he told it in class at Duke. I made up the street #)

Our Gospel lesson for today centers on John the Baptist’s call to repentance. Repentance begins in the recognition of personal involvement in and responsibility for the Evil which surrounds us.

In a sermon on this text; the Rev. Will Willimon, former Duke University Chaplain and current Methodist Bishop of Alabama,makes an interesting observation about some of the most popular movies of the 90's. Movies like Armageddon and Independence Day and Aliens I, II, III; show a world in which the evil which threatens us comes from outside ourselves, from completely outside, from outer space. In their vision, we are totally not responsible for the evil which threatens the world. It’s not our fault.

John’s call to repentance is a call for us to look at ourselves and to see in ourselves and our attitudes and our actions the things which lead to evil in the world.

John’s call to repentance is a call to look at our way of being in the world and in relationship to one another and to repent of those things which cause harm to ourselves and others.

John’s call is a call to confession and repentance. All too often, we make it as far as confession, and then stop. Confession is the admission that there are indeed things we do in life that are wrong. We confess that, and go no further.

One day in Nashville I went to the Y to pick up my son. As I approached the entrance, a very angry mother barged out the door followed by a girl about 4 and a boy about 7. The boy was saying, I told you I was sorry.
And the mother turned and said, hissing between her teeth,
Sorry doesn’t get it anymore.
I want you to stop doing it!

True repentance combines confession, I’m sorry, with what the old prayer books referred to as amendment of life.

The Greek word translated here repentance is not really a religious or theological word. It is metanoia, which is an ordinary, everyday word in Greek. It simply means to turn around and go the other way. To stop going one direction and to start going in the opposite direction. It means to realize you’re going the wrong way and to start going the right way.

The Gospel, the Good News, is rooted in this simple act of repentance, because we can only stop going the wrong way if we have shown to us the right way.

None of us goes the wrong way on purpose. Nobody here would go out and get on I-40 and intentionally head East with the goal of going to Winston-Salem, that would be silly.

And to realize you’re going toward Durham when you want to go to Winston, and then just shrugging and saying “Oh well, I’m only human.” and then, continuing to go the wrong way while crying about it , would be ludicrous.

Just so, few of us choose to do bad things just because they’re bad things. We follow the paths we take in life because they seem to us the right, the best, way to go. And if we then realize that we’re in the wrong, to confess without amendment of life would be as inane as continuing
on to Durham, knowing we’re going the wrong way.

The Gospel comes to turn us around, to show us the way, to warn us of the danger in the path we are taking, and to provide for us a route to safety.

The Gospel is that Jesus came into the world to open for us the way to God. To unblock the path and to call us to follow Jesus on the way.

For us to turn from the way we have been going, we have to see that we are being called to turn from danger to security, from evil to good, from wrong to right, from our way to God’s way.

One of my very earliest memories is of a bright summer day on the farm.I was playing in the backyard, under the apple trees. My Daddy was mowing hay in a field next to the house. Aunt Mildred called to me from the back-porch. She sent me into the field with a quart jar full of ice and water for Daddy.

As I started out across the field, Daddy stopped the tractor and got off and started yelling at me.


Now, even as a 4 year old, I knew that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so Daddy’s instructions made no sense to me.But I stopped and thought about it a minute. Though I could see no reason
to stop and go back and go around, it was my Daddy telling me this, so I backed up and followed his instructions.

When I got to the tractor, I discovered that he had run over a yellow jacket’s nest in the ground and had stirred them up. The angry swarm lay directly in the path I was following.

So it is with us. We may not be able to see the destruction which lies upon the path we have chosen, but we have a loving God and a caring Saviour who are calling us to turn from the path of self-deception.

The way is being made straight, the opportunity is here. John’s call is ringing in our ears. REPENT, REPENT! Turn Back! Go the Other Way!

John’s call to REPENT is a call to look to our lives and change direction, so that when Christ comes in the flesh, we will be ready to receive our salvation. Amen and Amen