Wednesday, December 25, 2013

It's a Family Service

Christ is born for you! And yesterday almost 200 folk experienced this. For that to happen- the experience (not the birth), God birthed many other things for which I give thanks:

The fact I found slightly “vintage” costumes in closets that became shepherds and wisemen, Mary and Joseph. That old confirmation gowns became angels. That Burger King gives crowns and some craft store magic became angels’ wings and a star. That sheep and cow hand puppets and stuffed animals appeared.

That our new church musician wrote two songs for kids to learn.

That even though we did not learn all the verses, we learned one of each.

That there are jingle bell wrist bands for little ones who are too young to be in the telling of the story and that spontaneous ringing happens.

That the Gospel of Luke is so beautiful and that there is always a high school person willing and able to read it. That this same gospel, (together with a couple teaser verses of Matthew) is enough to allow kids to live out a story without having to learn lines. The story itself is enough.

That 17 kids came out on their first day off from school to practice for an hour and then came Christmas Eve as instructed.

That this year, there were three mamas, a grandmother and a kind soul willing to help “shepherd” the flock.

That just before we began church- those same people all bowed heads with me and prayed and gave thanks for the gift of Jesus.

That over half of the people at the “Family service” were not members of the congregation. And that of those people more than half were from the afterschool ministry.

Even better- our own volunteers had personally invited beyond our printed invitation.

That those same people added to my instructions of hospitality and convinced people it was OK to come for communion, or let me know the mom with a new baby could not come up so I could go to her.

That everyone saw the energy of jingle bells during hymns, of pausing after the nativity and last song for pictures, and the glowsticks for Silent Night as joy for the birth of God with us.

That seasoned saints had smiles to see kids- and could dream dreams. That some stayed for both worship services (imagine it!)

That one Mom came to me and shared she had not been in church since her mom died, and we cried and hugged as she told me it was her son’s enthusiasm that made her stretch but she was glad she had.

That a new family shared they had moved away and were now back and that he was once Baby Jesus in this place when he was 2 months old.

That kids helped tias and abuelas and mamas meet La Pastora.

That we almost ran out of bread.

That the ornaments on the tree were Chrismons made by young hands barely able and old hands longing and others made by the kids in the service. And that someone commented not only were they beautiful, they said- “this place is real.”

That someone saw a young couple who has been struggling and slipped the pastor an extravagant amount of money and said to give it to them anonymously. And that when they received it they were moved to tears and all I could do was say that this is what the love of Christ does when hearts are touched.

That people struggling came out of the dark into the light to hear that Christ was born for them.

That even the stodgiest skeptic exclaimed it was fantastic, and the best ever time of really being one with our neighbors.

Someone said recently that the Family Service suggests if you do not have a family, don’t come. NOT true. I know that "family" can be complicated.
Here's what we mean- It suggests God makes us family where we are always meeting distant relations who draw close with us in the mystery and the joy.

Christ is born for this!

Good news indeed!


The Star is the Light

Earlier tonite we had over a hundred people here for our Family Service, and one of the features of it is that the kids of our congregation and our afterschool program, the Doves Nest, help us tell the nativity story in real life. I found costumes and even animals, this year including sheep and cow hand puppets. This year as we were planning for the Family Service and our acting out of the story of the birth of Jesus, one of our youth insisted he did not want a role in any way. Which was kind of understandable because he is a high school student surrounded by little kids. I pondered for a moment as he and his family were there-what to do for someone who doesn’t feel part of this if he doesn’t want to be a shepherd, or a wise man or really anything. But yet he came to practice. And then, Shazam!

“You can be the star!”  I exclaimed excitedly, which of course got the most confused, skeptical, even irritated look.  After all he had just said he did NOT want a role. “The star,” I said again, gesturing and holding my hands above my head to demonstrate. “We need someone to hold the star over the holy family.”  This received a crinkly but growing and even grateful smile. And after a moment kind of a look of pride that he could as the tallest, and seemingly awkwardest one have a place in the story after all.

At home, my daughter and I set about trying to make a star, and after a lot of cutting and glue and glitter and hope, turned some discarded cardboard into a mighty fine but not audacious star. And I imagined him standing there in this unexpected joy that had replaced his expectation of disappointment.

That star led me to the focus I want to share tonight-The star is the Light.

Not just literally because stars, glowing orbs fiery gas shine in our night sky. More to the point- in the face of all our striving to make Christmas perfect to overcome our disappointments. In our longing to be stars for a just a moment-

into this world of ours, comes the real star-The Light. The star of this night and our whole lives is the Word- Jesus Christ who brings light to the world.

As we look around we can see just how much we all long for the light. In today’s paper on the front page were two stories of this side by side. The one on the left is about a man who has been working since mid-October to string 60,000 lights and synchronized music. Competing in a national TV contest to win $50,000. And he won! The quote in the paper from his wife is that since he was never athletic she was glad he could finally say he won something. Wow.

The second story was of a woman whose mental health and financial troubles led to her electricity being turned off in October, and until members of her church found out she had no light, no heat, nothing. One person is immersing himself in lights and another wondering if she really would just be in the darkness. And there it is.

I wonder if our profusion of lights and inflatables and the escalation of getting more, faster, suggests we long for the chance to overcome he dark places we know all too well. Then imagine that first night when the star was the light. There was no display of fine things. It was not beautiful. Or even light. And perhaps Mary like poor women still in the world, gave birth in the dark, perhaps without any light at all. Lonely and scared just hoping it would be OK. Yet-this is how and where God chose to enter. Not to encourage us to ignore the dark, to meet us in it and help us walk into the light.

This night we came here to step out of dark places and into the light. Each with our own stories, to Christmas- knowing we all strive to create those star moments. Perhaps ones where we hope the light will hide our lives so we can be our best selves, if just for a moment. Maybe it’s the first Christmas without a loved one, or another week without a job. Or Mom’s dementia is worse, or the medication isn’t working. Or you walk with a secret or wonder where everyone has gone.

The poet Wendell Berry says that “it gets darker and darker and darker-

and then Jesus comes.”

Jesus has come. Somehow the light comes. It is quiet but wondrous news that God comes to remind us again that we don’t have to be stars. We don’t have to be stars to receive Christ.  

We the people who walk in darkness are shown the light. It’s not overwhelming, or domineering. It’s also not artificial or temporary. It just IS. Light for us.

It’s what I think moves us to tears when we sing Silent Night in the candlelight. That flickering yet hopeful moment. It almost seems fragile. Yet we realize how powerful God is in the stillness with the light and the birth of a baby.

We silence the noise, as God shows us the holy and reminds us that we all really do have a place after all. In the light.

To grasp that who we are for real is exactly who God seeks out to love and to save. And that is wondrous news! It’s not about us and how we Christmas.

God’s life dwelling among us invites us to see the real star and to point to that light. God in Christ with us-not only in this night but in all the days to come. We don’t know how, but it is so.

I close with words of blessing from Jan Richardson:

I cannot tell you how the light comes.

What I know is that it is more ancient than imagining.

That it travels across an astounding expanse to reach us.

That it loves searching out

What is hidden, What is lost, What is forgotten Or in peril or in pain.

That it has a fondness for the body

For finding its way toward the flesh

For tracing the edges of form

For shining forth through the eye, the hand, the heart.

I cannot tell you how the light comes, but that it does.

That it will.

That it works its way into the deepest dark that enfolds you

Though it may seem long ages in coming

Or arrive in a shape you did not foresee.

And so may we this (night) turn toward it.

May we lift our faces to let it find us.

May we bend our bodies To follow the arc it makes.

May we open

And open more

And open still

                                 To the blessed light that comes


Sisters and brothers-Rejoice in the light! And may the light of Christ born for us shine in our hearts and in our lives! Amen

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Where We See Exit, God Enters

“If you think God does that, get out!”  That seems to be the theme of most of the talking heads on TV and the internet- there’s the War on Christmas, arguments over whether Jesus must be white, and the recent words now under attack by one of the personalities from Duck Dynasty about who God is rejecting. I suspect people have spent more time analyzing all of these words than any actual words from Scripture. Everyone poised to win the argument. At the same time this week as the frenzy over who won Powerball began, everyone in our national media began to obsess about what it took to win.  At one point, a reporter, who had nothing concrete to say blurted out-“This is what the winning ticket looks like!” And he held up a generic lottery ticket. As though by seeing that ticket people could be believe there was a winner. Like it was a sign. That in the midst of statistical improbability, we’d get a piece of something that made those words be real. Show us something that will help us believe what seems impossible- what winning looks like. And so I kind of wonder in such as world as ours, what people would make of the family tree of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew that is made up of prostitutes and drunkards and lots of other people many would call offensive or even losers. Come to the adult discussion class to hear more. Not to mention the scandal surrounding Joseph and Mary. Today we hear about God’s improbability in the face of our certainty.  Where we see EXIT, God enters to be GOD WITH US and show what winning really looks like.

In Isaiah, for instance, we see Ahaz, King of Jerusalem meeting the prophet. Syria and Israel have come to attack Jerusalem. Ahaz is certain this attack will end badly, probably pondering an exit strategy. Isaiah instead says-though odds look pretty overwhelming, this will end and your world will not fall. The end of your distress will happen soon.  Because Emmanuel comes. Emmanuel- GOD WITH US- in this and where you see fear and war, there will be peace. I would want a sign. What’s amazing is Ahaz should ask for a sign- that’s what you do with a prophet. But he does not. And by not asking it seems that Isaiah wonders if Ahaz really believes what God will do.

I can’t decide whether Ahaz can’t see beyond himself or whether he knew he might ask for the wrong sign. Because when you’re under attack what you want is a fellow warrior, power in the form of some kind of weaponized sidekick. And time would pass in a nanosecond. God will use a baby? And it will be awhile? That’s your idea?

When you’re in the middle of conflict, you want it to end. You want to know where you stand. It was so unimaginable.  Even though Ahaz is skeptical, God determines to give a sign and to act. And the promise came true for Ahaz. Even though he fumbled with how to receive it. Where Ahaz saw EXIT, God entered to be GOD WITH US and show what winning really looks like. Then, Isaiah’s words became words so powerful, people believed they could come true again. They wrote them down and held onto them. Because however improbable, they might not just be once and done. And God’s story went on.

Fast forward to Joseph and Mary. Today’s reality TV has nothing on the back story of the birth of Christ. In Matthew, it’s not all graceful pondering-it’s fear and drama. Because Mary is pregnant, and the scandal is deep and her alibi is shaky. As we glimpse Joseph behind the scenes it isn’t pretty. He isn’t looking for a sign, unless it says “Exit.” He’s trying to take charge and manage his righteous image. And frankly anything other than getting out means he has to live in this dysfunctional life. But where Joseph sees EXIT God entered to show what GOD WITH US looks like. Where you see confusion and pain, there will be love and healing. What seems impossible is not. Signs and wonders even though Joseph fumbled with how to receive the power and presence of God. And God’s story went on.

And so too for us. “The Lord God will give you a sign” are words still for us- even when we give up looking for any signs beyond those we can make ourselves. When we wait for a Warrior God to fix our world full of people who we’re sure are wrong or who need to be defeated. GOD WITH US in all the places we fall into the trap of believing God should be like us, only bigger. And in the times we envision God as vengeful in a world obsessed with getting even. Where we point to the EXIT sign, God enters with the still unexpected vision of winning. God enters to be God WITH US.

This is the sign- A baby born to the scared and confused, in a messed up and fighting world. To people who continue to fumble the God we receive. Jesus, Emmanuel enters still to remind us that in all our fears, longings and needs, God’s love wins.And these words live. This is the sign.

One writer says, “Unless we see the sign of the child it is all too easy to turn “Immanuel, God-with-us” into a call to defeat our enemies.  God’s sign of a child surprised a king and an unwed father named Joseph. This sign matters in a world that continues to worship a vengeful God who can crush our enemies. Seeing the child as sign of God-with-us paints a different picture, (one our world needs far more than our battle to be right): The Word comes as a child who can be received and cannot hurt us; a Word that does not make us afraid. What is so amazing is that when God does come among us, whatever God’s hurt or indignation, God comes not with violence, but as a child, vulnerable to our further hurt that we might receive rather than fear him.”  It’s an odd way of winning, but it is salvation for all of us. On this last Sunday of Advent, as we ponder the improbable reality of Emmanuel, Jesus born to save all people and to be God with Us, I share with you these words Barbara Lundblad used to write a new verse of “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” :

O come, dear child of Mary, come,

God’s Word made flesh within our earthly home;

Love stir within the womb of night,

Revenge and hatred put to flight.

Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,

God’s chosen one, Immanuel, draws near.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Tell Me Again

At home I was told- “look it’s 10 days to Christmas, just tell good news.” Which is kind of ironic since earlier this week at our pastor’s Bible study we were talking about this week and what we were preaching and a couple of us talked about how this year we had committed to preaching Isaiah. And one person kind of lamented that decision, saying that this week’s reading is pretty much just a repeat of last week. Peaceable kingdom, things growing where once things were barren, hope and peace for God’s children. BLAH, BLAH, BLAH. Won’t that sound kind of cliché and repetitive?

Which got me to thinking. That the real irony is that we’ll listen to the same bad news- death, violence, destruction, anxiety and hopelessness-over and over and over again. And seemingly never tire of it. Two weeks in a row of good news?

Well then the news of the week happened- and again I stand before you to proclaim good news in a world that cannot fathom yet another school shooting, much less frankly the rest of the news of violence and despair. We think we are living in an ever changing advancing world, but we are actually just doing variations on the same unholy theme.

Why do we just keep singing the same old song? Aren’t we finding it kind of lifeless?

Tell me again, why do we do that?

Tell me again.

If you’ve ever watched TV shows or movies, there is a dramatic move called “tell me again.” Like when two people are shown in a car headed somewhere and the passenger turns to the driver and says something like, “tell me again why we’re doing this?” As they drive into the storm. It functions for the character to say out loud what everyone else is thinking- and helps the audience know where the story is going.

Tell me again. This is what John the Baptist is asking. Some people think this is about John wanting to make sure he’s not wasting his time. But John is in prison and he knows his life is likely to be at risk. He’s asking Jesus to tell him again to be reassured. Tell me again- are you really the ONE? Tell me you’ve got this.

That was what was on my mind this week- and maybe yours too. As I am frankly impatient with God. I have a holy longing. Today again we light that pink candle and share words of rejoicing, knowing they are dulled by violence and darkness, we talk of being cared for but are nursing a hunger in moments of doubt and desolation. Tell me again, Jesus.

And so I imagine John there in prison- it’s dark, and foreboding, and he’s separated from the energy of the movement he helped prepare. And he’s said all those prophetic words, but had to be weighed down with disillusionment over the world as it was, and his state. Stuck waiting, not really living and facing death. Will it really be as you say, Jesus?

And Jesus tells him the prophecy is being made true. And I imagine all the imagery of Isaiah dancing in his head perhaps- that suddenly a parched desert will be watered and life on hold will burst forth. And what seems treacherous will be made safe. That the way that has been prepared is being further prepared- healing and wholeness are beginning.

Many of us know that when we have doubts and sorrows, we find it almost impossible to believe there will again be joy, that sorrow will be followed again by gladness. Just like when the seasons bring dormant times, it can seem like they will never change. And if you stand in the desert when it is dry and parched, unless you saw pictures and heard stories of the blanket of riotous flowers you’d never believe it would happen. But it does.

Especially in the desert where it seems God knows that cacti need to have not just a flower, but a riot of color to prove it. That after months of nothing, it seems it suddenly blooms. Just like my mother-in-law’s Christmas cactus. After months of tending it, she’ll invariably say- tell me again why I tend this thing?  Wondering but one day you walk in and there’s the first hot pink bloom. And then within days- a shower of flowers spill forth. Sometimes not even for Christmas at all, but in November or March. Proof that you never know when, you just know to look for it. And that one time of blooming may not be enough. Truth is we never tire of it no matter how often it breaks forth.

It’s like God’s good news for us. Breaking forth in the word and meal to reassure us, and meet us in our waiting and longing. Where we find ourselves saying- tell me again. And God is found in our stories of where healing happens, when rejoicing comes, and how new life emerges. God present as we remind ourselves of the places we can only explain by saying God has been at work on the way. You are the one we wait for, O God. And it’s happening even though we do not see it in its fullness. Help us keep with you on the holy way, knowing you’ve got  this. That’s why we keep telling the same good news. To be met by Christ who knows we struggle to rejoice and believe but meets us with words of hope and good news. And so we look and we work and we pray- Tell us again and help us find your way. Amen.