Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve Sermon

Christmas Eve, 2007
“The Cross and Christmas”

A couple of weeks ago, on a Thursday afternoon, I went down to Twin Lakes retirement center to hear the Choir sing. There are quite a number of Friedens’ members who sing in that choir, and I couldn’t help but notice that most of them were in the front row. Does the Director put you there so that she can keep an eye on you?

It was a good show. They did well. Some of the staff participated and they did a great job also.They did a very hilarious version of “I ain’t getting nuttin’ for Christmas.” Do you know the song? A little boy sings about all the mischief he’s been in, and then the chorus goes:“I ain’t getting nuttin’ for Christmas, ‘cuz I ain’t been nuttin’ but bad”

After I finished laughing, I started thinking and realized that while that line sums up a lot of our thinking about how God works, it’s just not true. Indeed, it is the exact opposite of the Gospel truth of this night; it is because we “ain’t been nuttin’ but bad” that we have received the one gift we needed, which is Jesus Christ Our Lord.

Not just or primarily us as individuals, but us as the human race, us as humanity, As the Bible says, God so love the World, the Cosmos, that he sent his only beloved Son.

It’s not so much that we are individually evil, it’s that the world is in a mess, and needs to find its way out. The first Christmas came at a time of political and social unrest. Israel was once again a conquered country, living under the domination of the Romans, ruled by King Herod, a cruel, cruel man.

When Christ came, there was hunger and social injustice and war raged upon innocents, all in the name of such things as Truth and Justice and National Security. Then as now, the old values had become skewed and obscured and unrecognizable, and no one knew whom they could trust.

And into such a world God sent his Son.

The message then and the message now is that we are not alone in the midst of the world’s evil, Though we, collectively, ain’t been nuttin’ but Bad, we’re still getin’ something for Christmas.

God has come to us in the midst of our distress. In the middle of our loneliness and despair, God has sent us a sign of his love. Into a world filled with hopelessness, God comes to us in the hopeful form of new life and new birth.

Back in the 1960’s, a Methodist Minister I know graduated from the Seminary at Drew University in New Jersey and was sent to his first church, near a little farm town down east of Raleigh, NC.

In July, he had his first funeral. In seminary they told him that they should sing whatever the family requested, and so he asked the widow what song she wanted, she said, “He liked Silver Bells. He always said he wanted Silver Bells sung at his funeral.” So my friend swallowed hard and said we can do that.

So it was that on a blistering hot day in July, in a little country Church without Air Conditioning, the choir stood up at a funeral and sang, Silver Bells, Ding a Ling, it’s Christmas time in the city.

My friend said he would never forget the confused look on the faces of the congregation as the choir sang verse after verse of Silver Bells at a funeral. As the minister led the procession across the street into the cemetery, the widow caught up with him and whispered, You know Pastor, I was wrong. It wasn’t Silver Bells he wanted. It was “When they ring those Golden Bells for you and me.”

Christ came to be a beacon of light in a dark world, Christ came to show us love in the midst of hatred and strife. Christ came to bring life in the midst of death. Which is why it is not such a bad idea to sing Christmas songs at funerals.

It is a reminder to us that Christ did not come to be cute, Christ came to die. Just as the Cross looms over our Altar, the cross hovers over the manger of the Christ Child.

Christ did not come so that we can have parties and give gifts.
Christ did not come, to reward us for being good, but to save us from being bad.
Christ came to show us the love and care of God in the midst of a deadly and dangerous world.
Christ came to show us how to live and how to die.
Christ came to die upon the cross for us, to save us from sin, death and the devil.

Realizing that, we are ready to celebrate with somber joy and reverent jubilation:

Silver Bells, Ring-a-ling, it’s Christmas time in the city.
I’m getting’ sumethin’ for Christmas, even though I been nuttin’ but bad.
For unto us a child is born, who is Christ the LORD.

Amen and amen.

A Christmas Story

A few years ago, when I was pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran in Nashville, I went to a Christmas party in our neighborhood. She was Jewish, he was Unitarian, their son was in second grade with our son. We met at PTA. It was only a day or two before Christmas and I had been out and about visiting and taking Home Communion and I came late and wearing my dog collar.

As we settled down to dinner, I found that I had been seated next to "Gramps," just arrived from his home in Israel for the holidays. Spotting my collar he asked in what sounded to me like a British accent, "C of E?" I shook my head no and said "Lutheran." "Pity," he said, "I have a soft spot in my heart for C of E chaps. Got me through a bit of a rough patch once."

Then he told us this story:

He had been raised in South Africa, as he put it "in a pub." His father ran a series of taverns in mining towns and the family lived "above the store, as it were." Though they were Jewish, they weren't at all religious. He said that from the age of 8 or 9 he spent most of his time in the pub with his Dad, serving drinks and learning to play piano by ear; ballads and drinking songs mostly.

When WWII came along, he volunteered for the British Army. When they asked his religion, he thought a minute. They stamped religious affiliation on the dag tags. For Jews, they put a Star of David. The last thing he wanted was to be captured by Jew-hating Nazis with a Star of David around his neck, so he said "I'm C of E, (Church of England)."

He was captured, somewhere in Italy I think. They were in a facility that had a piano, and he occasionally played when they were allowed recreation time.

On Christmas Eve, two guards came to get him, along with a German Chaplain, who told him in English, "We're allowing a captured C of E Priest to hold Christmas Eve communion service, and we know you're C of E and that you play the piano, so we want you to play for the service.

He thought, O my God, I'm caught, for he knew no Christian songs, no Christmas carols and he couldn't read music, he played by ear.

When he got to the makeshift chapel, he managed to convey his problem to the C of E chaplain, who caught on quickly and asked for a quick rundown of songs the man did know. The priest must of done some rapid meter calculations in his head,
for he would announce a hymn and then say, "and our pianist will play one verse so that we can remember the tune,"
and some how the crowd caught on too, and sang Christmas carols to whatever tune the Priest and piano-man had figured would fit.

And other than thinking the English had odd taste in Church music, the Germans never had a clue.

"And so," my dinner partner summed up, "I have a soft spot in my heart for the C of E and it's clergy. And every year I send a contribution to the Anglican Church in Jerusalem. and I keep Christmas, thanking God for the Christians."



Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Advent IV

Dec. 23, 2007

Text: Matthew 1:18-25

TITLE: The True Meaning of Christmas

The other day, I got up early, made a pot of coffee and settled down to my early morning ritual; watching Gunsmoke on TVLand. It was a “Christmas” episode.

The story went something like this: A pleasant and good-hearted ne’er do well got fired from the orphanage for drinking on the job. He then told off the stern, old-maid headmistress for not celebrating Christmas for the “kiddies.”

As usual, things got a bit complicated and everybody in Dodge got involved but finally there was a Christmas Party for the children at the Long Branch Saloon and everybody once again and just in time learned the TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS!

While watching the show, I remembered a lot of TV shows and stories from my youth that followed the same plot; which was perfected by Charles Dickens in his classic “A Christmas Carol.” There Ebenezer Scrooge gets to learn what? The true Meaning of Christmas.

A few years ago John Grisham wrote a book that became a movie starring Tim Allen. It was called Skipping Christmas, and the main character gets cheap and selfish, but eventually learns, what? The True Meaning of Christmas.

Now, here’s a good question. What, exactly, is this True Meaning of Christmas everyone has so energetically been learning? I hate to say it, but I don’t think it’s the same meaning that Matthew and Luke had in mind when they wrote about the shepherds and wisemen and angels and animals and the strange doings in Bethlehem of Judea.

No, the True Meaning of Christmas as proposed
in these modern times has something to do with these ideas:

1) it is more blessed to give than to receive

2) we should be nice to everybody

3) having lots of stuff won’t make you happy,
only loving relationships will make you
truly rich and happy.

All these are admirable sentiments, but they are not unique to Christianity and they are not even remotely close to what the writers of the Gospels wanted to tell us about the birth of Christ.

What we usually do is pick bits and pieces of the Biblical story to “proof text” and “prop up” these ideas. Let’s see: the wisemen brought gifts so we should give, the angels sang something about “good will to all people” so wed should love everybody and King Herod was rich and miserable and Mary and Joseph were poor but proud, so there you go.

I’m sorry folks, but giving and niceness and a mild rejection of materialism are not the True Meaning of Christmas.

That meaning is found in one little word that occurs in two of our lessons for today: Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23 both refer to Immanuel, God is with us.

That is the true meaning of Christmas. Emmanuel, God IS with us. Not God WAS with us, long ago and far away. Not God will be with us, pie in the sky, by and by. But present tense, here and now, in this time and in this place, Emmanuel, God IS with us.

Not only God IS, but hear clearly, God is WITH us.

Not God beyond us. Not God a way off there somewhere, remote and removed from our everyday lives. Sometimes we like to keep God at arm’s length, we like to keep the holy tied up in the church, like a lovely Christmas present; nicely wrapped and tied with a bow, carefully stashed beneath the tree, but having nothing to do with our daily and ordinary lives. We have God and church and Christ neatly cordoned off into an inoffensive corner of our lives. We may think we have kept God from interfering in the way we live our lives, but that won’t do, Emmanuel, God is with us, won’t allow it. Emmanuel refuses to stay in the corner, Emmanuel insists on messing around in our lives, Emmanuel is God WITH us.

Nor is it God beneath us. Some people treat God and Godly things as an interesting subject for observation and study. They are charmed by the Christmas stories; they find it interesting how the church adopted the approximate date of the winter solstice as a date for Christ’s mass, the day when the SUN begins to return to life. OH, THE IMAGERY IS SO FASCINATING. And then, of course, there are all the parallels with the pagan mystery cults; and of course Handel’s Messiah is such a lovely piece of music. Why Christianity is just embedded in the very fabric of Western Civilization, etc. etc.

But Emmanuel, God is with us, will not allow this. Emmanuel is not God beneath us, nor God beneath our microscope, as some sort of object for our curiosity or admiration. NO, Emmanuel is God with us, God in our midst, God in our lives.

I must warn you to be careful how much you study Godly things, for god is very sneaky, and in the midst of your study you may find yourself drawn into relationship with the one who IS; for God is not beneath us; God is WITH us and works continuously to draw all things into the Divine Presence.

God is not beyond us, God is not beneath us, and God is not between us. There is way too much religious strife in this world, way too much “God is on my side and against you!” Emmanuel, God is WITH us, came to all people, not just the people like us, or the people we like. God is WITH us, not between us. Emmanuel brings us together, does not push us apart.

For the true meaning of Christmas is this: In a mystery too deep for words, too profound for theologians, too irrational for philosophers and too unproveable for scientists; God’s love dictated that God enter in to humanity and be with us, all of us, to share in our joy and sorrow, our triumphs and tragedies, our fears and our faith, our life and our death.
And so, the story goes, it happened one night, long ago, in the city of David, that a child was born whose name was Emmanuel, God is with us.

And the Gospel for today is God is STILL with us and will be with us forever and ever, amen.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"Songs of Salvation"

“Songs of Salvation”
a brief homily for Lessons and Carols service.

The world’s celebration of the Nativity of Christ is surrounded by Song.

No secular artist puts out a Thanksgiving CD or an Easter Album, but almost everybody tries to “cash in” on Christmas, either with new songs or old favorites. Christmas songs fill the Malls and Stores and Radio playlists from early November until Dec. 25. And the question arises: What is it about Christmas that causes the heart
to sing?

It was like that from the beginning. In Luke’s Gospel: Mary responds to the Annunciation with what we call The Magnificat, Zechariah celebrates the birth of his son John (to be called the Baptist) with a song that points to the birth of another child, the Coming One. Of course the angels sing to the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth and at the dedication of the child old Simeon sees the baby and bursts into praise.

Again, what is it about Christmas that causes us to sing?

We have lots of good Easter Hymns, but the non-Church world is much more likely to know “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” than “Thine Is the Glory.” But not so with Christmas Carols. Almost everybody can sing at least one verse of “Away In a Manger” or “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and can recognize the tune of a dozen more. Is it just the vast exposure on Radio and TV, or is there something about the Birth of the Christ Child that makes us want to sing?

A Couple of things occur to me.

First: the only really appropriate response to mystery is adoration, and what better way to adore than to sing.
The story that we celebrate at Christmas is a “something more” mystery. Underneath all the theological baggage and argumentation there is this for all of us: life can be very ordinary and difficult and painful and short and depressing. The birth of a child as the Son of God, a message from beyond that God does love us after all, that this world is not “all there is,” that Peace and Love and Joy are real and are really important and are really possible is a message we all need to hear.

So even those who have their doubts about God, and Jesus and the Church, will themselves to believe in the “something more” that Christmas represents to them: the potential for good in a cold and lonely world. And that Mysterious possibility is something to sing about.

Second; for those of us who receive the story as a true story, a story about how the God of the universe let go of all the trappings and power of Heaven to come and be born in a stable, taking on as the Eucharistic prayer says, “our nature and our lot,” that too is a mystery beyond words. We cannot comprehend a love that big and that deep and that complete, and when ordinary words fail us, we, like Mary and Zechariah and Simeon and the angels; burst into song, for we have no other choice.


Wednesday, December 05, 2007


December 9, 2007

Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

A few years ago, my friend Pr. Warren Casiday told of meeting God on the highway.

He said that he and his wife were traveling North on Interstate 85 when a semi began to top the crest of the hill ahead of them heading South.

Above the cab, across the front of the trailer were emblazoned the letters G – O – D.

Warren mind began to whirl with silly questions and ideas: What kind of music does God allow the truckers to play in the CD. Is it all Contemporary Christian, or can you pop in a little Rap of Country? Would God ever break the speed limit? And if God did speed, would the State Trooper give God a ticket?

As the truck drew closer and Warren that the side of the trailer read Guaranteed Overnight Delivery, one final question flashed through Warren’s mind:

If God is going South, what am I doing going North?

John the Baptist came out of the desert and the wilderness, right down the middle of life’s highway as loud and as noticeable as a semi. He was a clear and unmistakable sign that God was headed South and everybody else was going North, headed the wrong way.

The key word in John’s preaching was repentance. In Greek the word is metanoia. It means literally to “turn, to change, to reverse oneself.” In the Greek language, it is not a particularly religious word. It is rather an ordinary, everyday usable word for turning around and going the other way.

Bible Scholar Alan Richardson says, “In its New Testament usage it implies much more than a mere “change of mind;” it involves a whole reorientation of the personality.” To use Pr. Casiday’s vivid image, If God is going South and we are going North; what should we do?

Well, maybe when we see God going in the other direction, we could be deeply sorry that we are going the wrong way. We might hit ourselves on the forehead, or beat our chest, and say something like:

God be merciful to me, a miserable driver with a poor sense of direction. I know I’m going the wrong way, but - - -I don’t know anything I can do about it. After all, I’m already headed in this direction, and I’m making good time, and I’m getting good gas mileage, and it would be very difficult for me to change and go the other way, and besides, I know you’re a God of grace and love and you’ll forgive me for going the wrong way.

Put in those terms, it sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it? But all too often, that’s how we think about repentance; being sorry for going the wrong way in life, asking God to forgive us, but not doing anything about it, not changing direction.

Another popular response when finding oneself going the wrong way is to blame others for our misdirection. You could look at your spouse and say, “you told me to go this way,” or “going this way was your idea,” or, “it’s not my fault, everybody else was going this way, how was I to know?’ (This option is an old favorite, dating back to Adam and Eve, “You ate the apple,” “You gave it to me.”)

Or, you could blame the map or google or the guy at the gas station.

A modern response is to blame God for going the wrong way. We could spot God in the Southbound lane and look over at our spouse and say, “Would you look at that? God’s lost, God’s going the wrong way, God’s out of touch with the modern world’s sense of direction.”

People have always been good at explaining failure and avoiding change. We fall back on a variety of excuses and reasons, all designed to protect things as they are, we avoid change, especially when the change God calls for will be painful for us personally. We are usually quite willing to ask others to change and equally unwilling to make changes in ourselves.

John’s words to the Pharisees and Sadducees strike at the root of the matter. The text says they were coming for the baptism of repentance, so why does John reject them?

It is because he recognizes that they were coming to join the crowd, they were not coming as people who knew they needed to change, nor were they willing to change.


John thunders at them, and what he means is pretty simple; Let me see some evidence of a changed direction in your life.

Many of the Pharisees and Sadducees assumed that just being members of the Chosen People was enough. They had latched on to the Chosen part with out remembering the “chosen for a purpose” part. God’s people were Chosen to follow God and to lead the world to follow God. The Pharisees and Sadducees had forgotten the responsibility to others that goes with being a part of a Covenant People of God.

Once during the War Abraham Lincoln had a conversation with a minister who was a fervent abolitionist and war supporter. He said “Mr. Lincoln, don’t you believe that God is on our side?”

Lincoln replied, I certainly hope so Sir. But a more important question would seem to be: Are we on God’s side? That is still a very important question:

Are we on God’s side? If God is going South, why are we going North? If the Kingdom of God is at Hand, what must we do to be ready?

I always remember my mother’s efforts to decorate our little four room house
for Christmas. She had transparent plastic sheets, the size of notebook paper, that contained Biblical nativity scenes. Taped onto the panes, they looked like stained glass windows.

Year after year, Daddy traipsed out into the woods and came home with a scrawny “Charlie Brown” lop-sided pine tree. We would tuck it in a corner to hide the bad side and decorate it with lights and balls and tinsel.

There was a Vacation Bible School Nativity scene for the top of the TV and green holly draped on the wall above the stove and we tacked up five of Daddy’s long gray work socks on the wall above the wood box. We were “getting ready” for Christmas.

John’s word to us today is that GOD is coming, and we need to get ready. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Listen to Isaiah’s version of the promise:

11:1A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
3His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. 10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

That is the kingdom that is coming, that is the world that Jesus brings with him, that is the side of the road GOD is traveling on.

God is traveling South on the side of Peace and Justice and the Poor. It is not for us to debate as to whether or not that is the side God is on, or whether or not God should be on that side.

God is barreling down the highway in that direction and the only question for us is Are YOU Ready to Follow? Are you ready to REPENT, to change direction and to follow God wherever God leads? Amen and amen.