Monday, January 22, 2018

January 21, 2018 - Repent and Believe this Good News

When I hear the word, “Repent” I often think of images like the story of Jonah where Jonah goes into the city of Nineveh with the word of God and the news reaches the king and the whole city repents.  According to the text, every person and every animal is dressed in sackcloth and fasts.  And everyone cries out to God hoping to escape God’s punishment.  In this case, repentance is being extremely sorry, honestly confronting past behavior and turning away from it.

                We often confuse apology and repentance.  An apology is often part of the act of repenting, because you acknowledge what you have done and the harm you have done.  But this has long been a critique of Christians, we apologize for things but we rarely repent, which involves changing our ways.  I apologize for the stuff I did last week knowing that I’m going to do much the same stuff this coming week.  That is not repentance.  That is apology.

                It’s important to hear the difference as we encounter Jesus’ summary of the good news in our text today.  These four phrases are the key for reading the gospel of Mark.  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Everything else in the Gospel of Mark is the confirmation of that message.  In this case, repentance is not so much about saying you are sorry, but is much more about change.  And in Mark, it is not so much about changing your ways but changing the way you look at world.  It is turning away from the shiny objects of this world and refocusing on the realm of God.  It is changing how you understand the world works.

                We are seeing some of this in the #MeToo movement, especially as we encounter some of the lame excuses that men give for treating women so reprehensibly.  “It was a different time,” they will say.  “When you’re famous you can do whatever you want,” they will say.  “We had no idea that this was happening in our offices,” they will say.  Our society is being called to repent, to see things in a new light.  To see that this way of treating women or treating any person is broken and unacceptable, even though at one time it might have been considered normal.

                We have gone through this kind of repentance before as we look at our history.  We used to think that slavery was normal, part of divinely-ordained society, it’s there in the Bible.  Now we look back at that time and wonder how anyone could think that.  We used to think and are still struggling with racism as a normal way of looking at the world, that some races or nationalities are inherently better than others.  I remember my children when they were younger being mystified by the stories and especially the images of segregation, things like drinking fountains and restroom posted by race.  They couldn’t understand how anyone could think that way.  There has been some measure of repentance.

                Jesus also calls us to look at the world in a new way.  This was an even more dramatic calling in 1st century Palestine, where, by most accounts, life was pretty difficult for the common Israelite.  The Romans were there as an occupying force, levying high taxes on the people.  The work simply to make a  living was difficult.  And you had religious officials who were proclaiming a path of righteousness that was also a lot of work and regulation, a path much easier to follow if you had the free time to observe, the resources to observe a pure Sabbath.  And along comes Jesus with the message that says, in the midst of this situation, “The kingdom of God has come near.”  Repent.  Change the way you look at the world.

                He says to people who have been taught that wealth is a divine blessing and poverty a divine curse, “God truly loves the poor.”  This difficult life is not separate from the divine.  Righteousness is not found is an expanding spiral of rules and regulations, but in simple love for God and one another.  This world has been created in the love of God.  This world is permeated with the love of God.  This life is an extension of the love of God.

                In the contemplative tradition, faith happens when we recognize that the love of God is a constant that sustains and supports us in all situations.  When we get things right and when we get things wrong, the love of God continues.  When life is great and life is hard, the love of God continues.  When we are embraced by that constant love, we are free to love others.   When we are connected to that infinite love we are free to share because we know that love will not run out or fail us.

                And we need to regularly repent, change the way we look at things because the shiny objects of world distract us and turn us away from that love.  There is a shiny object that jingles and says, “What you have and how you look is who you are.”  There is a shiny object that jangles and says, “What other people think of you is who you are.”  There is a shiny object that rattles and says, “Where you come from is who you are.”  There is a shiny object that shakes and hums and says, “The good and the bad that you do is who you are.”  We see and hear variations of those messages every day and they are tempting and distracting and often just serve to make us feel a little better than someone else.

                Repent, says Jesus.  The love of God is how you were made and who you are and what you are meant to be.  The kingdom of God is near, among you.  Repent and believe this good news.  The love of God is how you were made and who you are and what you are meant to be.  

January 14, 2018 - Come and See. Learning to Love

During this season after Epiphany, this bridge that takes us from Christmas to Ash Wednesday, I am going to be talking about the Christian virtue of love.  I will also be writing some articles on the Cape Cod Lutheran blog that you can read to go a little deeper.  In some ways, preaching on love should be simple.  We talk about love quite a bit in church these days.  God’s love for us, shown to us in the love of Jesus.  Jesus sums up the whole Christian ethic with his discussion of the greatest commandment.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.

                But if we really take the virtue of love seriously, we will quickly discover that love is complicated, bringing us into conflict with other beliefs and values, even the scriptural tradition itself.  Some Christians claim they are centered on the love of God and therefore cannot tolerate same-sex marriage.  Other Christians claim they are centered in love and therefore feel compelled not only to tolerate, but affirm and bless such relationships.  Some Christians, in the name of love, use their buildings to offer sanctuary to illegal immigrants.  Other Christians drive into the southwestern wilderness, maintaining water stations to help people on the journey, but also bringing those people they find directly to the authorities, all in the name of love.

                And what are the limits of love?  At what point do we say, enough?  At what point does love become enabling?  At what point can we stop being the patsies for those who would take advantage of the loving?

                I do not have a simple answer to any of those questions, perhaps because the model for love in the church was the ultimate patsy, someone who died falsely accused, died so that the authorities could feel a little more secure, died voluntarily so that those who follow him might see the ultimate meaning of life.  When this is the model for love, love becomes very complicated.  It’s easy to say, “Feed hungry people” or “Share with the needy” or “Hug your neighbor.”  It is very difficult when love is associated with sacrifice, giving all that you have for the sake of others.

                This is where the story of the call of the disciples in John’s gospel is helpful.  Three words are uttered a few times in John’s gospel, “Come and see.”  Today we hear Phillip say them to Nathanael, but it is Jesus who speaks them the day before, inviting his first two disciples to the place he is staying.  I think these words convey  what happens when words are not enough.  I cannot tell you what is happening in a satisfactory way.  I can only invite you into what I have found, to meet this person who has welcomed me.  Come and see the meaning of life.  Come and see the meaning of love.  Come and see Jesus. 

I have had several conversations over the years with people who ask me, as a religious professional, “What do we believe about the resurrection of the body, gay marriage, abortion, life after death?”  I always find these conversations a bit awkward because, while I can speak to the social statements of the ELCA or our historical creeds my lived experience is we believe a lot of different things about a lot of different topics depending on the day.  This is nothing new.  Anyone who studies a little church history will come to find that Christians have rarely spoken with a single a voice on matters of faith.  And the problem is that Jesus didn’t tell people what to believe.  He didn’t write a book.  He lived a life, shaped by the love of God, shaped by the promise of life, shaped by compassion, contentment and peace.  He lived it and then said, “Come and see.”

                This idea should give us pause when the impulse of the church is to find gimmicks.  Come and see our Tiffany stained glass windows.  Come and see our wonderful music program.  Come and see our junk (yard sale).  Come and see our excellent preacher.  Come and see our state of the art facility.  It’s not that Jesus won’t be found in such places, but we must never forget that our primary reason for invitation, for programming, for a church’s existence is to be a place where people can come and see Jesus.  If people come to a community and only see stained glass windows, hear pretty music or experience a state-of-the-art program, they may not be encountering Jesus, which is the reason that the place exists.

                In our tradition, worship takes a central place because we have this understanding that worship is a time when we come and see Jesus.  We see Jesus in the community gathered.  We hear Jesus in the words of scripture and words of forgiveness and words of peace.  We encounter Jesus together at the communion table.  We are empowered to go out and live a “Come and see” kind of life.

                But it is not a “Come and see my church” kind of life but a “Come and see Jesus” kind of life.  And when we step out of church where can people come and see  Jesus out in the world?  In acts of love and compassion.  When people accuse the church of being hypocritical, it is usually because we have forgotten a simple truth, to know love is to know Jesus.  Where love is at work, Christ is at work.  So the first place where people should be encountering Jesus out in the world is not in a church building, but in you and me, in Christians whose lives become a place where the world can come and see Jesus.

                And while this may include special acts of caring and outreach, most of it is simply how we see, treat and acknowledge other people.  It’s how you treat the teenage kid who just started a part-time job at the grocery store and hasn’t quite figured out the system and is taking a little too long.  It’s how you treat the acquaintance who rubs you the wrong way, who tells those interminable stories that don’t seem to have a point.  It’s how you treat your ideological opposite in a divided political context, having compassion for their misguided ideas.  It’s how you treat the person who is different from you in belief or culture.  It’s how you treat the person in need.   It’s how you treat anyone who gets to wear the label of human being no matter what country they come from.

                Are we going to get this right all the time?  No.  The context in which we encounter people matters.  The way we are treated by others matters.  Our history with the person matters.  I believe that Jesus presents us with an ideal of love to direct our path rather than a law of love which we will consistently fail.  Just like awe and wonder, Christian love is a virtue that we develop over time.  We are disciples, students, learning to love. 

                At our Still, Small Voice gathering yesterday we talked a little bit about this.  How are we supposed to love everybody when we can look at history and there are such bad people who do terrible things?  I even know a few jerks today.  There is a logic that says, “I can’t love Hitler, therefore I will never be able to love everybody.  So why bother?”  We tend to look at the extremes.  But as I have said, love is something we are learning, a virtue in which we grow as disciples.  Start with learning to love the person in front of you.  Then move to the confused kid in the grocery store and the annoying acquaintance.  Learning to love takes time and practice.

                Jesus has said, “Come and see” to us and led us here this morning.  And then he will send us like Phillip to say, “Come and see” to the world.  And sometimes we will get it right and sometimes we will get it wrong and next Sunday Jesus will say, “Come and see” once more.  By exposing ourselves to the love of Jesus here, we are empowered to share that love the rest of the week.  So come and see Jesus in this place.  Come and see the meaning of life.  Come and see the meaning of love.  Come and see Jesus.

January 7, 2018 - Epiphany and Assets

Officially, yesterday, January 6, was Epiphany, a day which over time has celebrated a number of events in the gospel story.  At various times and places in Christian history, Epiphany has been the day of celebration of Christ’s birth, the celebration of the three wise men, the celebration of the baptism of Jesus, the celebration of the first miracle, water into wine.  Depending on where we are in the cycle of readings, we will hit on all those stories at the beginning of January.  Normally, the Sunday after Epiphany is the celebration of the baptism of Jesus.  Yet we decided that on this Sunday we would take part in an asset mapping project for our congregation and, as such, I thought the Epiphany story of wise men bringing gifts to the infant Jesus was fitting.

                Think about the contours of this story.  These travelers from the east don’t know much about the person they are coming to see.  They are following a sign in the heavens, which brings them to Israel.  They get more details from Herod, who sends them to Bethlehem after consulting with his religious experts.    They come to kneel before this king bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrhh.  A fair amount ink has been spilled giving special significance to these gifts.  Some note that there are ancient accounts which would suggest that this trio was a standard gift package for royalty.  Others (such as the “We Three Kings” hymn) will point the symbolic value of the gifts: gold implies royalty, frankincense priesthood, and myrrh, an anointing oil, a symbol of Christ’s death and the preparation of his body for burial.

                Yet perhaps for us we should acknowledge the ancient wisdom that you don’t show up to the king’s house emptyhanded.  The gift was a point of honor (and a bad gift could be a point of shame, hence the lack of tube socks in the story).  In some cases, the gift was given to cement a friendship, in others it was given to appease a stronger power.  But in this story, the gift is really about honoring the child.  The wise men don’t seem to have ulterior motives, hoping to be remembered or honored in return down the line.  They arrive.  They give gifts.  They go home.

                So when we talk about gifts, assets today, the sense of honoring Jesus is part of the conversation.  Often when we talk about gifts in the church we end up talking about money.  In the middle of our worship we take a collection and offer it God, both as a way to further the mission of the church but also as a way to simply honor the God who gave it to us, to show gratitude.  And money is an asset that we bring to church.  Money can be a limiting factor as to what condition our building is, the type of staffing we have, the kinds of ministries we can do.

                But money is far from the church’s only asset.  We are a community of people with gifts of time and ability.  Most of you have vehicles and many of you have used those vehicles for ministry, driving homebound folks to appointments, bringing food to those served by Belonging to Each Other.  We have a building, and three nights a week people come for help to deal with the struggle of addiction.  We honor God by using our gifts, our assets faithfully.  God is infinite and so there is nothing that we can give to God that God does not already possess.  We honor God by using what God has given us for the sake of God’s kingdom.

                Now this is a moment where I will sound a little stern, because I have been here almost 10 years and I know how many of you think.  Often when we do this kind of exercise folks come to it with a conclusion already in mind.  We should have a weekly choir.  We should have a weekly Sunday school.  We should have a big committee structure that feels like a real church.  I am often amazed when I have read church administration books at how they assume that every church will have a certain, standard package of gifts available.  “You will want to talk to the lawyer in your congregation.” “ Hopefully, an accountant in your congregation will serve as treasurer. “  This kind of thinking does not serve the small church well because it constantly sets it up for disappointment.  I guess we just aren’t talented enough to have that choir or young enough to have that Sunday school.  As our dear member Sylvia S. would say, “Poor us.” 

                But we do have a place and a purpose.  We do have unique, God-given gifts.  When I mentioned Sylvia, many of you knew who I was talking about even though she hasn’t been able to be here in a few weeks.  That is one of the gifts of a smaller community.  We have a better chance to be in relationship with one another.  Recently, we did the work of crafting a new mission statement, “Serving through faith, centered in Christ, guided by the Word.”  That simple statement is extremely deep and can take us in many different directions based on how we use the assets God has given us.  Fundamentally, what we are asking as we look at our mission and as we look more deeply at our community is, “What is God’s will in this community?”  Having a renewed sense of mission and knowing the gifts we bring to the table, “What is God’s will in this community?”

                I’m going to invite you to take a couple minutes to have an initial stab at the question.  Talk with some of the folks around you and give your gut answer to that question…

                As the wise men of our story, we offer our gifts to honor Christ.  But as the body of Christ, we use our gifts for the kingdom of God.   May we offer our gifts joyfully and use them faithfully to work toward the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

December 31, 2017 - 1st Sunday in Christmas - Two Nativity Stories

I have been talking about the virtue of awe and wonder for the past few weeks and have not really talked about the place of scripture and the Christian story within that.  I recently published an article on this topic which I would invite you to read.  Some of you may think it’s great and some may find it challenging.  Part of my thinking in all of this is that when we teach ourselves to find awe and wonder in the everyday, what is naturally going on around us, we are training ourselves to find awe and wonder as a staple of our faith.  We can learn to approach faith and scripture with a sense of curiosity and wonder, something that can be lost when your primary focus is proof.  As some traditions do, if you spend your time trying to prove the accuracy of our ancient stories, you will often miss the point.

                Our nativity stories have in many ways fallen victim to this kind of thinking and, as we are in the Christmas season and are sitting on the Sunday in between the celebration of those two stories (we read Luke’s account on Christmas Eve; we read Matthew’s account around Epiphany), I thought it fitting to look at those two stories and see what each is trying to tell us about Jesus.  Now some of you who are more familiar with the texts might argue that we have third nativity story in John’s prologue to the gospel that begins, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and Word was God” and ends with the declaration, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”  That account also has something very important to tell us, but it’s far more theological and you can’t put it around a manger scene, so I’m going to stick with Matthew and Luke today.

                Most Christmas scenes as we imagine them or as we have them installed in our homes or as we have shivered through them in living nativities are some combination of figures and symbols from Matthew and Luke.  There is baby Jesus in his feeding trough/manger.  There are Mary and Joseph.  There are various barn animals, most prominently an ox and a donkey, a reference to a passage in Isaiah, “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib,” which was not really part of any predictive writing.  It is part of angry section of Isaiah that compares how farm animals are obedient but Israel has not been loyal to god.  The full text is:  ““The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”  Yet it was associated with Luke’s nativity early on in the life of the church, and we have the ox and donkey quite early on in images of the nativity.  We will also see shepherds, sheep and angels, references out of Luke, shepherds who see and hear angels who give them the good news of the birth.  But we also have a star in the heavens and three wise men (or kings or magi) which are references to Matthew’s story.

                Now the Matthew story doesn’t actually tell us how many wise men arrived on the scene.  There are three gifts mentioned: gold, frankincense and myrrh, but as far as the text goes there could have been anywhere from two to a think-tank of wise men meeting the infant Jesus.  If you pay attention to Matthew’s text, he sets the meeting of the magi and Jesus in a house as opposed to a stable.  He’s not telling a story that is meant to fit with the stable story.

                So when we put all those figures out and the scene gets very crowded, we lose track of the fact that Matthew and Luke were actually trying to say something important in their stories.  The gospels were not written as history texts, merely to tell you what happened.  To truly find the wonder in these texts, we have to ask a different question from the kinds of questions that we might ask as rational people influenced by the scientific method.  I remember going to a planetarium around Christmas time one year and seeing a presentation that was a series of theories about what the star in the sky in Matthew might have been.  What kind of celestial object could be followed?  One suggestion was a comet, an object that appears only periodically and that an ancient astronomer might follow across the night sky.  While it is an interesting theory it has nothing to do with the story.  The author of Matthew did not understand what a star is.  We hear “star” and we think of huge balls of fiery gas light years away from us.  Ancient Hebrews saw points of light God had installed in the dome of the sky to help mark the days and seasons.  Greeks and Romans saw the vestiges of ancient heroes, forever memorialized in the constellations by the gods.  When hearing this story they didn’t ask, “How did that happen?” or “What was that thing in the sky?”  They asked “What does this mean?”

                Luke and Matthew give two answers to the question, “What does this mean?”  They give answers that are not mutually exclusive, but are quite different.  They give answers that were meaningful to their original audiences and that are reflected in the way they tell the rest of the story.  Keep in mind, all of this was written well before any kind of printing press or simple publication process.  There was a period of years early on in the life of the church when Matthew’s group only knew Matthew’s gospel and Luke’s group only knew Luke’s gospel.  There were Christians who, when they thought of Christ’s birth, they thought of stars and wise men.  There were Christians, who, when they thought of Christ’s birth, they thought of angels and shepherds.

                On Christmas Eve, I talked a little about Luke’s answer to the question of “What does this mean?”  He presents a Jesus who is born as a common Israelite, an unremarkable birth, a story told in opposition to the birth stories of the great and powerful.  In Luke, Jesus is the Messiah for the 99% who challenges and threatens the 1% by his lack of interest in their power and wealth and his deep interest in those in need.  He is a Jesus who suggests that wealth is not a sign of God’s favor and poverty is not a sign of God’s abandonment.  In fact, he will suggest that God is closer to those in need than those in wealth, saying in the sermon on the plain, “Blessed are the poor, for yours in the kingdom of heaven” and “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”  So you can see that if you tell that story and then say, “And by the way, some really wealthy guys rode in on camels and elephants to declare him king,” you lose some of the power of Luke’s message.  Jesus is pulled out of his role as one who identifies with the poor and the common and pulled into a role as a superior and tremendous Messiah.

                Matthew gives a different answer to the question of “What does this mean?” in part because he is writing for a different audience.  Most scholars think that Matthew was writing specifically for a Jewish audience.  He quotes Hebrew scripture more than the other authors.  He includes images that will evoke the hopes of first-century Israel.  The magi are such figures.  Whatever label you give them: wise men, kings, magi, what is important about them is that they come from nations beyond Israel and recognize Jesus as an authority.  The star is a part of this theme, an object that can be seen from afar, throughout the world.  It all references an image from Isaiah that had come to represent the coming of the Messiah, “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  Many peoples shall come and say, “Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”  Jesus is going to be the one to begin that process and fulfill that prophecy, an idea that drives King Herod, the puppet king of Israel, into a murderous rage.  So you can see if you tell that story and then say, “And by the way he was born in a stable and nobody thought he mattered,” it confuses what Matthew was trying to do.

                Now this is the kind of delving into the biblical story that I find fascinating but others can find troubling.  It raises questions about how we understand scripture.  It raises questions about whether things happened the way the authors said they happened.  Welcome to the Bible.  It’s not Newsweek nor was it ever intended to be.  The authors are trying to tell a message with the story, and they shape the telling to share the message.  And remember that the fundamental question is "What does this mean?”  What does this mean for me and for my life?  What does this mean for the church?  What does this mean for the world?  Although their images of his birth are quite different, both Matthew and Luke are saying something that is true and important about Jesus.  With Luke Jesus is the one who comes to walk among the common and the forgotten.  He is the one who comes to point out the beauty of every person and point out God’s concern for every person, especially those who are in need.  As Christians and as the church we have to wrestle what that means for our life together and our ministry.

                With Matthew, Jesus is the one who expands God’s promises beyond the story of Israel and throughout the world.  God is the God who reaches beyond borders.  God is the God who includes those who are different and invites those who are not like us.  And again, we as the church need to wrestle with what that means for our life together and our ministry.

                We have to wrestle with both images because both images say something true about Jesus.  And where I will close today is to remind you that the good news is that both these passages imply that Jesus was born for you and those beyond you.  God is a God who reaches beyond your history and ethnicity.  God is a God who reaches beyond your education and social status.  God is a God who reaches beyond your mistakes and bad habits and imperfections, the walls we think should keep God away.  God is a God who often reaches out further than we would want to go.  Both stories of Jesus’ birth are about God entering your reality in a new way, and transforming it, inviting you to see this world as divine, shaped by hope and love.  As we experience the words of scripture on Sunday morning and hopefully, as you experience them on your own, keep asking that ancient question, “What does this mean?”

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

December 24, 2017 - Christmas Eve - Christmas by Candlelight

For the past month I have been talking about awe and wonder as a Christian virtue.  We need to have that feeling of being pulled beyond ourselves so that we can point to the God who is beyond us as the church.  I have challenged the congregation to think in terms of the scope of time, giving everyone a rock and imagining the millions of years that have led to this moment, this rock in their hands, God present for it all.  I have invited people to think about the wondrous and amazing nature of creation by looking at the variety of life in our world, animals that are strange and amazing and, as with the running octopus, seem a little silly.  In my writing on the capecodlutheran blog, I have challenged the trend of artificial wonder in the church, sounds and settings with the goal of making people feel a certain way.

                I am a big advocate for finding wonder in the ordinary, letting awe and wonder be a part of our daily lives, however you get there.  And then I thought about tonight and the things we do around Christmas, especially that moment about twenty minutes from now when we will dim the lights, pass the flame from candle to candle and sing “Silent Night.”  A similar action will take place in congregations around the world tonight.  We don’t do it because it is some church law, nor because it can be found in the stories of scripture.  I was never taught to do this in seminary worship classes and yet every congregation I have served has it as part of their Christmas tradition.  Jesus never says, “When you celebrate my birthday, I want you to pass out candles and sing a pretty, German song.” 

                Rather it is a tradition that developed because it makes people feel a certain way, a certain warmth, a certain wonder.  In many ways it is a reflection of the nature of the story of Jesus’ birth.  We dim the lights and sing by candlelight.  We dim the lights and sing by candlelight not just because it is pretty, but because we have this understanding of Jesus as the light in our darkness.  As John wrote in his introduction to the story of Jesus, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  This is the nature of the gospel story.  The Son of God arrives in a broken world, a world longing for a clear vision, for a new dawn, daybreak after a long night.  Now in many a sermon tonight pastors will now launch into a section on how awful things seem to be.  This is kind of a manipulative move.  We do it so that we create some tension in the sermon so that you can be uplifted at the end and really feel a need for the baby in the manger.  I am not going to go into a full spiral of angst.  You know how things stand: the international tension, the general lack of civility, the levels of impatience, anger and general rudeness that seem to have become acceptable.  Perhaps another reason we want to dim the lights is it feels like we are stepping away from that world for a few moments.

                I suppose this is also why we sing a song like “Silent Night” as opposed to “Joy to the World” in the candlelight.   “Silent Night” feels a little more like a lullaby sung to a baby, but I think this song has had such resonance because it reflects the strange nature of the birth of the Son of God.  Much of the way the story of the birth of Jesus as told in Luke is in opposition to the stories of the births of the great and powerful of Jesus’ time, and the mythic stories of the children of gods.  Because we tend to combine the accounts of Matthew and Luke, we miss that in Luke’s story, the signs and wonders are very local, shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem have this amazing experience with angels proclaiming the good news, but no one of importance hears it.  To most of the world, the birth of Jesus was unremarkable, or remarkable for its lack of wonder:  poor parents, poor conditions, attended by poor shepherds.  This is not the story of power and wealth, trumpets blaring and mandatory celebrations.  Jesus is born in Bethlehem and nobody that matters is aware.

                It is the lack of remarkability that can lead us to a place of awe and wonder, of quiet appreciation by candlelight.  This is something that the folks who talk about a war on Christmas don’t understand.  The greatest mistakes and the greatest shame within Christian history have arisen at those times when we have failed to follow the example of Jesus.  They are the times when Christians have wanted to dominate, be the greatest tradition, be the best religion.  The marvel of this night is that this night was unremarkable.   The Son of God sneaks into the human world and barely anyone notices.

                But that is going to be the nature of the story of Jesus.  He will give an example and invite you to follow.  He will walk by the Sea of Galilee and invite fisher folk to walk with him.  He will turn away from power and dominance and invite others to kindness and caring.  He will forgive those who hurt him.  He will welcome those who repent.  He will teach us to see the world in a new way that is shaped by hope, peace and lovingkindness.  He will do this without insulting you or badgering you, commanding you to anything but to love God and love one another.

                The events we celebrate tonight are the first example of what Christian life looks like and feels like.  It is about humility, a humility that happens because you don’t need to be the best or the first, a humility that is grounded in knowing the love of God as a constant.  It is about peace, peace in all circumstances, even when things are imperfect and unremarkable.  It is about comfort and joy.  These events are worthy of our praise, and as we sing “Joy to the World,” after the sermon, we acknowledge the greatness, the wonder, the world-changing nature of the nativity, the reign of God breaking into humanity.

But first and foremost, this night is about love, the love of a mother for her child, the love of God for humanity, a love that gathers us together.  And I think this tradition of candlelight at Christmas is a reflection that the church is not only served by explosive, angels in the sky,  praise , but also by simplicity and quiet, a community gathering by candlelight to pay close attention to a child no one noticed at the time, the Son of God in swaddling clothes, the Son of God lying in a manger.  On a silent night; a holy night, Christ is with us. 

December 24, 2017 - 4th Sunday in Advent - A Story for the Real Us

We didn’t know how to plan this Sunday, to be completely honest.  I assumed morning attendance would be a bit sparse, that the rule of one would come in to play, the informal rule of our congregation that says people will come to the building once on a given day.  If there is a cleanup on Saturday morning, the Still, Small Voice group will be low because people come once a day.  And you can have an event right after Sunday service, but don’t try to get people to come in the afternoon because, people come once a day.  So I assumed that most people would come to Christmas Eve services.  Our minister of music had a performance opportunity this morning, asked to use a vacation Sunday and I said, “Go ahead” because, again, I figured it would be a small group that I could lead on guitar.

                But then yesterday, I began to wonder if my calculations would be wrong.  We have an older congregation and many people who don’t like to go out in the evenings.  Maybe the morning service will have more people and the evening service will be an intimate group holding candles, their few voices overpowered by Christmas carols on the organ. 

                Now somewhere the Dickensian Christmas spirit of Herr Pastor circa 1950 is looking on the proceedings, waving a finger and saying, “They should come to both.”  I could get all worked up and angry because people aren’t doing what I want them to do.  But this is more how we imagine ourselves than how we live.  A couple of years ago I wrote an article about when to cancel church in bad weather.  I have always lived next door to my congregations so I can always make it.  And there is a philosophy that would say we should never cancel because someone might make the drive.  In my article I talked about the imagined little, old lady who was so dutiful that she would drive through the snow in order to make it to worship if we failed to cancel.  It was that little, old lady for whom congregations made their cancellation policies.  My experience is, if that little, old lady ever existed, she is no longer with us.  In our community, if there is an inch of snow, that is enough to keep people off the roads.  But we want to imagine she exists in our community because it makes the rest of us feel more faithful.

                Yet that hasn’t been our reality for quite some time.  My internship supervisor, Orv Lind told the story of how when he was in seminary in the 1960s, daily chapel services were supposed to be mandatory, but when he went to his approval interview it was noted that he wasn’t there all the time.  “How often did you attend?”  He answered, “About 75% of the time.”  A committee member asked, “How would you feel if only 75% of your congregation came to church?”  To which he replied, “That would be pretty good,” because even in the 1960s 75% attendance would be unusual. 

                In general, we like to imagine that we are more active than we are and more faithful than we are.  One of the common reasons that people go to church is that it makes us feel like good people, makes us feel like the kind of people we imagine would go to church.   On the flip side of that, one of the common reasons that people have expressed to me for not going to church is they don’t imagine that they are that good, that they are the kind of people that they imagine would go to church.  You may have the relative or friend who jokes about being struck by lightning if they darken the church doors.  What they are really saying is, “I am not good enough to go,” or “I am not interested in being around people who think they are good enough to go.”

                The last idea is the more Lutheran response.  In the Lutheran tradition, we proclaim that none of us are good enough, not on our own.  None of us are as good we portray ourselves or even imagine ourselves to be.  This is a source of all kinds of frustration in life.  We know what we want to be and what we think we should be, and yet we are not.  I want to be loving but often I’m not.  You want to be generous but often it’s a struggle.  We want to be good stewards of our time, but often find time slipping away.

                The good news for us today is the story we are celebrating this morning and this evening is a story for the real us, the imperfect, the not good enough us.  It is not a story of ideal people doing imaginary wonders.  Instead it is the story of an ideal God disrupting the ordinary.  Because the angel Gabriel does not appear to Caesar or Herod or even the high priest.; he does not call to the great people or the powerful people, the important people or the tremendous people.  He appears to a young woman whom we would not know had it not been for this story, Mary, a young woman who also felt ill-prepared and unworthy.  Yet she is drawn into the story of God’s salvation and God’s hope for humanity.

                She is drawn into the story and inspired to sing the song that we sang in place of a Psalm today.  “My soul magnifies the Lord,” a song that celebrates those not good enough and intimidates the tyrant and the bully.  “God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”  This is a song that celebrates the imperfect, the common, the human, not the imaginary or the ideal.

                As I have been saying, this year I am going to be focusing on the path of discipleship, and one the dangers of that discussion is it can turn into a discussion of ideals and perfection, forgetting that discipleship is more about the attempt to walk the path, than an eventual goal.  We will stumble on that path as we often and always do.  The story we hear this morning and that we will celebrate tonight is a story for the real us, the ones who make mistakes, the ones who choose to sleep in sometimes, the ones who forget to be kind and loving and patient, the ones who get distracted by shiny objects, the real us.  God is interested in the real us, because it is only when we acknowledge the real us, who we are and where we are right now, that we can start to think about repentance, change and growth.

                The story of Christmas, the story of Jesus is a story for the real you.  You are worthy to hear it.  You are worthy to be here in this place, not because you have avoided a naughty list, but because God is good.  The angel Gabriel came to Mary because God is good.  Jesus was born in Bethlehem because God is good.  You are here because God is good.  The story is for you, the real you, because God is good.