Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Joy and Darkness

Please note - this sermon text is from 2015 - My Christmas sermon in 2018 took inspiration from this sermon text but was a completely different sermon, but as it was an oral event this is as close as I can come. Blessings...

What a joyful story this Christmas story is! Angels announcing the birth of the Christ child to a group of shepherds – shepherds, who in 1st century Palestine were treated as untouchables, who were despised and excluded, who were dirty and smelly, but who still are the ones to whom God announces the birth of the child.  And it is these shepherds who then run off to... where? Let’s see the text says about that: Well all it says is that Jesus is to be found laying in a manger – that is a feeding trough.  And feeding trough are to be found where there are animals; and animals, actually goats to be exact, were usually secured inside of some homes or in the many caves that can be found throughout the hills outside of Bethlehem.  Why goats? There was no need to put sheep in there because sheep have nice wool coats that enable them to withstand the bitter cold nights, but goats have no coats so would freeze to death if left outside over night.  So, these low-life, despised, dirty shepherds run off and find Jesus and his mother and Joseph in one of these dark and really smelly caves surrounded by goats and the text tells us that then, they worshiped him, they honored him.  Despite the location and the circumstances and the fact that these men were thieves and well, all kinds of other things – they were still overcome by the experience enough to pause to worship!  It is here, then, where we find the joy of Christmas.  Joy is not happiness – there is nothing in this story that is particularly happy – Roman oppression, destructive taxation, enforced travel, only able to find shelter with the goats in a cave and then giving birth in that environment, and finally visited by the dregs of 1st century Palestinian humanity - there is nothing happy in this story. 
But it is still a joyful story and we can nevertheless still confidently assert that Christmas is about Joy.  The joy that comes with the birth of the Christ child who is God enfleshed, incarnate – Emmanuel – God with us; the joy of receiving the unexpected and amazing gift of God’s unconditional love and grace; the joy of knowing that no matter what, we are loved and accepted and cared for; and the joy of knowing that through the birth of this Christ child in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago God has brought about our salvation and ushered in the new kingdom.  Joy to the World the Lord has come, let earth receive her king!   But yet at the same time we are still a people who sit in darkness; we still wait for the culmination of God's promise to fully bring about the kingdom; we still wait in Joyful expectation of the light that will not only shine in the darkness but will completely overcome the darkness!
And so, we assert - Christmas calls forth from us a joyful response – Rejoice, rejoice – Immanuel (God with Us) has come to us to ransom, to release those who are captive to the darkness!  But still, I suspect that some of us here tonight may feel that this joy that I am talking about is perhaps a nice idea, but in reality it seems to be so illusive and hard to grasp.  While many of us undoubtedly feel somewhat happy and excited tonight, at the same time I am certain that there are also many of us who are struggling with mixed feelings; that for some of us our feelings of joy are mixed together with feelings of sadness, loss and even fear and uncertainty.  Perhaps we're remembering Christmases past with friends or loved ones who are no longer with us; perhaps we're struggling with an important relationship and feeling some pain and hurt; perhaps we're feeling lonely or exhausted or maybe even hopeless.  And we come together tonight at the close of a very difficult year in our world and nation – terrorism, heightened and out of control racism, misogyny and hate, political inaction and division, cruelty, exclusion, increased poverty and homelessness, violence everywhere we look and an overwhelming sense of fear as settled upon us. On the face of it the darkness feels like it is overwhelming. What is there to be joyful about?
So, let us take a moment to stop and look carefully at exactly what it is that we're celebrating tonight.  Christmas - the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  And who is this Jesus of Nazareth? Jesus is Emmanuel - God With Us. The Angels tells the shepherds that this baby Jesus is a Savior – a savior who has not come to fish us OUT of our humanity but rather a savior who enters INTO our humanity – into the darkness of our humanity.  There is such a tendency to whitewash this story of Jesus’ birth; we clean it up and take away the dirt and the pain and the stench and we add all kinds of things to make the story more spectacular and heart-warming.  But if we can see past all of the escapist glitter and pomp and circumstance that are so popular in our culture, then what we are left with is the birth of an child to a rather ordinary peasant girl in absolutely miserable circumstances; we are left with the announcement of this birth by the angels to the most dirty, dishonest and unsavory bunch of lowlifes in Palestine; and we are left with the proclamation this this child is none other than God enfleshed – God incarnate – God who is born into our world out of incomprehensible love! 
And there is where we find the joy of this story and the joy of this season! It's not because of the angels, or the chorus or the quaint pastoral scene at the manger - it's because at Christmastime we celebrate the event whereby God plunges God’s self into the depths of the human experience.  God doesn't ease into this; but rather God jumps into the deep end of the human experience.  At Christmas we celebrate that through Jesus the Christ God chooses to get involved in our lives.  Not just during the good times or the happy times or the times when we feel confident and at peace - but also and more importantly God chooses to get involved with us and to remain by our sides during the dark times, the bad times - the times of grief and death and struggle and anger and loneliness and exhaustion and sadness and fear and abandonment and, yes, even during times of doubt and hopelessness.  At Christmas we celebrate that God will never abandon us, God is with us, Emmanuel. At Christmas we celebrate that even in the face of hopelessness there IS reason to hope and that reason is God's immersion into the human experience through the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
           This is what we have to rejoice about tonight.  This is why Christmas is about joy - not happiness but joy!  May each of you here experience the Joy of God with Us this Christmas; the joy of God's presence in the midst of your lives now and always.  Christ is Born - Joy to the World!  AMEN! 

Addendum: I would add that what distinguishes Joy from happiness is the promise which is implicit in the Christmas event - the promise that God's grace, God's Hesed Loving-Kindness and Mercy, and God's Shalom, wholeness, unity with God and others is seen everywhere in the Bible, but especially in this story of the Incarnation. And the 2nd element for joy is hope in this promise; hope that Christ is eternally present; hope that no matter what nothing can separate us; God that in the end God through Christ will defeat the powers of darkness and light will prevail. This is why even in the darkness there can be joy; even in the midst of tears there can be joy; even in the midst of the hardships of life there can be joy!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Thoughts on the Holidays....

Reflections from the Pastor:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
 (John 1:1-5, 14)
We have come to another Advent and Christmas.  Soon the lights will be up and the carols will be sounding forth.  Each year lately there always seems to be an ongoing to debate about what this season is really about, and while I do not think there is any kind of organized campaign to undermine Christmas, the fact is that I do think that the general society has lost a sense of exactly what Christmas is all about.  So I am going to wade into this minefield with my own reflection.  Here it is – In case you are wondering, Christmas is not about presents, or buying stuff, or lights and decorations; Christmas is not about saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays;” Christmas is not about the color of your coffee cup; Christmas is not about crèches in public places or the rights of one group over another or any of that stuff.  Christmas is not even about babies, mangers, inns, shepherds or wise men.  Christmas is about one thing and one thing only: God’s incredible love for us.  That is it.  Christmas is all about Incarnation and incarnation is about the love that God has for us that is so far beyond our comprehension that we cannot grasp but a little of it.
The scripture text quoted above from John 1 provides us with the center and foundation of our understanding of Christmas, and it is this understanding that comes from this particular Gospel text that needs to shape how we celebrate this great festival.  Think about it – God, the creator of the universe; the one who gives life to all; the God who called Israel out of bondage and led them to freedom; the God who refused to give up on the creation and stayed present and active with God’s people throughout all kinds of events.  This God has come into this world as a human child, born into poverty and darkness, welcomed by outcasts and people at the margins of society; visited by foreigners.  It is this God who has been born into the world as a fully human child; It is this God who will grow to adulthood and know every bitter and horrible experience that can befall a human being.  It is this God who will be persecuted and executed in a hideous and painful way, this God who will die on the cross because God’s love is so incredibly great.  And then it is this God who will arise and cast off the darkness and the shackles of death and life will burst forth.  This is what Christmas is about, and this is what we celebrate. 
And how do we celebrate this season in light of this incredible gift?  This is really for each of us to answer.  Perhaps the most obvious answer is through gift giving and certainly the practice of gift giving arose as a reflection of the fact that God gives to us the most amazing gift ever.  But it also calls on us to bear in mind that while accumulating stuff and buying presents is all fine and good, it should nevertheless not distract us from the central meaning of this festival: God’s love as shown forth in the Incarnation.  And that if we are to do anything to celebrate this season we should work on adopting an attitude of love and kindness to all; graciousness to all, especially those who find these holidays to be difficult because of poverty or intense loss.  For it is for those who struggle with the darkness of human life that God came into the world on Christmas. So, how do we keep Christ in Christmas? Simply by working to put love and grace into the center of our celebrations.
A final note: While some seem to find the phrase “Happy Holidays” offensive or a denial of Christmas, I do not.  For me the phrase “Happy Holidays” is a phrase of blessing and a beautiful phrase at that.  Remember that the world “holiday” actually his its roots in the phrase “holy days.”  So when you wish someone “Happy Holidays” or someone says this to you – a blessing is being spoken: “May your days be holy!”  What could be a more beautiful thing to say to someone at this time of the year?  And so, I wish you all not only a very Merry Christmas, but I pray that you all have the happiest of holidays as well.  And may you experience God’s love and grace in ways that are life-changing this season. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Family Separation - A Personal Statement

I need to comment on the family separation policy that is currently playing out at our southern border. Despite a so-called presidential directive thousands of families have been broken apart and young children have been warehoused across the nation. This is simply intolerable and disgusting.  On this we should all agree and I find it stunning and simply amazing that there are those who continue to defend this practice.  This practice is indefensible.  This is not a democrat vs. republican, liberal vs. conservative issue.  We are talking about the welfare of thousands of children and the integrity of refugee families. There is no “agree to disagree” here.

But yet the excuses and lame defenses continue. All of the ones I have seen have several things in common: they consisted of simplistic statements or were repetitions of out right lies and not only they were given in a self-righteous and sometimes hostile manner. One gets the sense that these apologists for crimes against humanity have simply stopped thinking for themselves and are just going through the motions of regurgitating what they have read or heard. I don’t know why they bother because they sound foolish and downright ridiculous given the seriousness of the issue. We are talking about the lives of children and families.

In my studies of ancient (and modern) paganism one of the most profound things I have learned is the focus on action. "You are what you do."  How you act in the world, how you relate to others, how you treat others, how you work towards the greater good (or not) defines who you are and your character as a human being.  In fact the ancient rites that were undertaken as part of the Eleusinian Mysteries were all about assessing one’s actions and relationships and behavior within the context of the community and recommitting oneself to work for the benefit of the community.

Those of us who claim the be Christian need to recognize that this emphasis on doing is really not so far removed from a Biblical understanding of faith. In the Bible – in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament – faith is not about what you think, or your attitude about God or Jesus, or your “personal relationship with Jesus,” or even about believing you will go to heaven when you die. Faith is about how you act in the world, how you relate to others, how your treat others, how you contribute to the community.  If you “believe,” if you trust in God, if you confess the name of Jesus then it needs to be reflected in how you act and how you treat others and how you live in this world.  Medieval Scholasticism and Enlightenment Pietism has internalized the concept of faith and personalized Christianity to the point where many, many seem to think that the beginning and end of their religious commitment is all about my relationship with Jesus and that nothing else matters.  Sorry, that is a cop out and is completely unbiblical. Faith is about what you do, not what you think or how you feel!

And ripping children from the arms of their parents is not representative of any faith that I know of. It is an act of hate and violence that is must be condemned. In fact hate of all kinds is not acceptable. Hate is born of fear and it all stems from a selfish focus on me and mine! As people of faith (used in the broadest sense of the word) I believe that we must reject this hate and fear in no uncertain terms and embrace love and acceptance, especially of those who are different from us.  

So – to those who are perpetuating this crime against humanity – either as active participants or cheerleaders: I don’t want to hear your excuses, and your half-truths and your lies. You need to look at yourself seriously and re-examine your values and your so-called faith.  If your faith permits the destruction of families and the abuse of children then we do not share the same faith, because the faith I look to is one of love and acceptance and a celebration of human diversity.