Following a Star into a New Year

Are you as curious as these ancient astronomers to search for God by following whatever star God has placed on your horizon?  Are you passionate enough to take up a journey of faith this year that will move and change you?  Will keep your heart and mind open enough to let God lead you to the truth of Christ’s presence in the world?

The star of Bethlehem did not lead directly to Christ; it stopped first at the place where those interpret it.  The Jews that Herod called for consultation knew Hebrew Scriptures.  The Bible is a telescope that allows us to see our star for what it is—a pointer to Christ.  The church is where you can come to get your bearings on what scriptures says about the star you are following.  We do not know everything because the scripture does not tell all, any more than the stars do.  Here we get closer to God.  Thus, the church is where you should resolve to spend your Sundays this year—among others who are looking for Jesus and have a sense of where God is to be found.

When the star stops and you sense God’s presence in the world and in your life, what then?  Well, let joy overwhelm you.  Jesus is the fulfillment of your search and the one that sends you out searching for others who are searching for him, too.  Let yourself feel the gift of joy, God’s gift to those who seek. This is what the magi felt, and it is not irreverent to be brimming with it as a Christian.  No faraway Persian or nearby pagan will long for a Christ that seems to produce dour disciples.

Next joy will lead you to give gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh—costly things given to the poor Christ child.  In the same way, if you resolve to follow that star this year, you need to open your pocketbook along with the Holy Book.  You need to give to all those who are in the vulnerable places Christ would still be found.  The most reasonable response is to invest ourselves in offering gift that relieves the suffering.  What people need most from religious people is not pious explanations, but a luminous church on earth that leads them people to the Christ.  Our gifts are signs that point to Christ.

When the magi left Bethlehem, Matthew says they went home another way.  I suspect they went a different way not only to avoid Herod and protect the Christ child, but also because they themselves were different.  They were not just retracing their steps back to home. They were blazing a new trail, making a new way of life.  Will the same thing be true for you this year?

Published in: on December 31, 2011 at 1:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Other Christmas-A Christmas Eve Message

There are two Christmases.  There is the Christmas driven by frantic spending and frenzied days.  This is the part of the season that makes Christmas shopping feel like we have fallen into a pool of piranhas that are picking our pockets.  This is also the time of year that can make preparing for Christmas meals feel like we are readying for military maneuvers.  I have something for those who soul and body is still caught up in the rush because you’re in charge of making everyone happy with their favorite foods and perfect gifts in the right sizes and with batteries.  We have a quiet room with soft lights, music, candles, and a therapist to help with your post-traumatic stress syndrome.  I will meet you there after the service.

Frankly, I have something better to offer.  The first Christmas is over, and it is the time for the other Christmas to begin.  I invite you to take these few holy moments we have together in the beauty of this sanctuary and let go of the other Christmas.  Take a breath; relax your neck and shoulders, everything is O.K.  Let your mind switch gears, or take it out of gear altogether.  These are sacred moments, and the Spirit of Christmas would like to charm the beast of the other Christmas that still lingers within us.  

Let me tell the story again.  “In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census be taken; that everyone should register in his hometown.”  A political agenda is afoot, for when an emperor orders a census, taxes are going up.  Caesar could not have known he was setting the course for something cosmic when his order dispatched a peasant couple to Bethlehem.  There they would give birth to their first-born son, wrap him in swaddling clothes and lay him in a feedbox.  We know the story and it appears nothing is afoot at all in this event.  Some mysterious princely Persian astrologers adorned with frankincense along with ragtag goat herders from the hills who had a certain air about their togas would kneel at this manger.  There is no hint God was up to something that would reverberate for the next two thousand years.

This child would continue to draw together every kind of person from every stage and station of life.  Look at us tonight.  Some of us drove here in luxury cars while others of us simply hope our “hoopdie” would make it home.  Some of us are decked out in designer wear bought off the rack, while others of us are wearing worn out ensembles from the back of the closet.  Some of us left homes brightly decorated and others came from modest homes decorated only with a small tree.  Some have a small child in the nursery; others have grandchildren older than parents who have children in the nursery.  Some will return home to a large family gathering, while others will return home to people trying to figure out how to be family.

We are all drawn here tonight for different reasons.  Some came to extend homage, others offer gifts, and some of us just felt we ought to at least pay attention to this newborn king.  We, hyperactive consumers who seek our security by insulating our lives with constant noise and floating bank accounts are no different than those who first gathered in Bethlehem.  We are all drawn to this manger for the same reason-We want to be loved.  We have heard this child offers us a real and lasting love that comes from the God who creates, redeems and sustains us in all our life.

The need to be loved is the most basic human need, which many are starved.  Even on this sacred occasion, every person present is aware of places in their lives where they feel unloved and are unable to offer love.  We want to be loved and learn to love again.  Thus, we are attracted to one who is billed to love without condition.  We are drawn to this child who offers himself so God’s love may be born in us.  We want to go beyond visiting the manger, to experiencing Christmas by allowing this this child to be born in that part of our life that needs loved.   

Perhaps you’re a parent or a child who can’t stand to be in the same room.  You’re starving for love.  Perhaps you’re a spouse whose marriage is hanging by a thread.  You’re starving for love.  Perhaps you’re carrying prejudice that isolates you in a self-made prison.  You’re starving for love.  Perhaps you’re unable to forgive a hurt so deep you’re not sure you can trust again.  You’re starving for love.  Perhaps your need to control prevents you from appreciating those who love you.  You’re starving for love.  Perhaps you’re a pastor who you became obsessed over being ready this weekend you ignored family and friend.  We are all starving for love.

This year I want to go beyond a nice visit to the manger.  It is right to enjoy the beauty and sentiment of the service, sing carols, say a prayer, and think nice thoughts as you receive communion and light a candle.  It is a good to give generous gifts to those we love and exert effort to lighten the load of the underserved.  The truth is, that will never be enough if the next day is business as usual.  Christmas is more than a nostalgic visit to a manger, where Joseph and Mary once laid their newborn.

Christmas is God entering human flesh to accomplish a divine objective of conveying the love of God to you and me.  The story has always been a bit messy and dangerous.  We should expect nothing less if this child to be born in us.  Imagine Christ born in you anew and you’re the parent of the newborn child of God. We are going to have to make some adjustments in our lives to make room for this new born to live among us in new ways.

We do so, by taking a leap of faith to hear this child speak words of love, so we leave here more forgiving, loving, understanding, and protective of the fragile gift of life, that is ours and for those with whom we share it.  We do so, by opening our eyes of faith and let this child shine the light of God’s love on our path, so we might have clearer vision about the struggles of the poor and the suffering of the innocent; committed to do what we can to make this place better fit for God’s presence.  The god news of Christmas isn’t God came to earth, but God is here; ready to be born in us so we might know real love for real people in real ways.

This babe of Bethlehem says I love you?  God leaned over the messed up playpen of our world to speak to us through an infant child in the simplest terms.  It is a message of God’s infinite and unconditional love spoken in baby talk.  “Cootchie, cootchie, coo” can’t be ignored or misunderstood.

Embrace the child, feel the love the child has for you.  Let your defenses fall and those barriers come down as you hold in your arms the love God has for you.  Thank God for the “other” of should I say THE CHRISTMAS.

Merry Christmas!

Pastoral Christmas Greeting and Christmas Eve Invitation

Tomorrow night we will sing with joy and reflect with care how God has leaned over the messed up playpen of our world to speak to us through an infant child.  It might seem strange to make such a fuss about a babe born in Bethlehem, surrounded by toothless shepherds and wise old men from back East reduced to babbling fools.  This child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger is trying to tell us in the simplest way how much God loves us.

I invite you to join us for Christmas Eve worship to hear the simple message of God’s infinite and unconditional love.  Come ready to receive heaven’s gift.  Each one of us will need to humble ourselves to hear God speaks in baby talk, saying “cootchie, cootchie, coo.”  Baby talk is the language of love.   It can’t be ignored or misunderstood.  God comes to us as a child to insure we hear God’s love us, right where we are on this night and beyond.

Three services are scheduled:

Family Friendly Christmas Eve Service

5:00 p.m., Main Sanctuary-All children present will help us re-enact the Christmas story.  The service will culminate with communion and candlelight.

 Traditional Christmas Eve Service

6:30 p.m., Main Sanctuary-A timeless service full of carols of the season, inspiring message of God’s infinite and unconditional love.  The service will culminate with communion and candlelight.

 Blended Christmas Eve Service

11:00 p.m., Historical Chapel-A blended service with songs of the season mixed with praise to Christ the newborn king, along with an inspiring message of God’s infinite and unconditional love.  The service will culminate with communion and candlelight.


Published in: on December 23, 2011 at 8:54 am  Leave a Comment  

Many Moods of Christmas: Love John 3:16-21

It is easy to confuse Christmas Day and Valentine’s Day.  They both involve the color red; gift giving; and they are shared with the one you love.  Retailers market both days similarly; using sentimentality and romance; covering these seasons like a blanket of snow.  It allows us to maintain a much idealized image in our heads of these similar observances.

Propping up the ideal can be difficult when the people we love find a way of fouling it up.  The kids don’t come home for Christmas or come late.  Your sister-in-law wants to have dinner at noon instead of 3:00 like you planned.  Your husband won’t cooperate and put up the Christmas lights or the yard art you so love.  Getting everyone together at Christmas can be an annual reminder that things are not right in the family; and they can’t be fixed with a fabulous gift, a beautifully decorated house, or a delicious meal.

We have approached Christmas this year; lighting the four traditional candles of hope, peace, joy and now today love during these Sundays of Advent.  The candle of love with light today symbolizes a kind of love that isn’t romantic or sentimental love.  It is a love that caused God to send the “only begotten Son, so that those who believe might not perish but have everlasting life.”  It might seem odd to use John 3:16 as a Christmas text.  But it is THE Christmas text.  It was love that motivated God to come among us, to save us and not condemn us, and to rescue us and not let us perish.  That is the heart of Christmas.

After 9/11 then mayor, Rudy Giuliani, spoke at a funeral service for a police officer.  He said: “I’ve learned something through all this.  When everybody was fleeing that building, and the cops and the firefighters and the EMS people were heading up into it, do you think any of them said, I wonder how many blacks are up there for us to save?  I wonder what percentage are whites up here?  How many Jews are there?  Are these people making $400,000 a year, or $24,000, or?  When you’re saving lives, they’re all precious, that’s how we’re supposed to live all the time.  How would you want the cops to treat you if you were on the seventy-fifth floor that day?  Would you want them to say, Excuse me, but I’ve got to get the bosses out first?  I confess I haven’t always lived this way.  I’m convinced that God wants us to do it.  He wants us to value every human life the way he does.”

The way God values every human life is to love every person enough to send God’s Son to rescue us from perishing and lead us to life everlasting. The way God’s Son rescues us from perishing and leads us to life everlasting is by first becoming one of us.  The essence of the Christmas message says God rescued us from this perishable human nature in order that we might share the imperishable divine nature.  God sent the Son into the world in order to make us sons and daughters of God.  God took on our dying flesh so that we might take on God’s living spirit.

The best news is God entered into our existence to love those who were not even aware how their life lacked the love God.  God moved toward us, even though we were moving away from God.  God’s only begotten Son gave up all rights like in order to make things right.  The kind of love that came down at Christmas is not romantic sugar-plum love.  It is not a sentimental, colored-light, tinseled tree love.  It is a pursuing love that bulldogs those who might not even know they want to be loved.

Christmas gatherings have a way of reminding families they are not as close as they wish.  Loving each other might seem impossible and will require a Christmas miracle.  Siblings, parents or children are brought together though they have spent the year dealing with the falling out.  Blended families who are always working on blending challenges sit at the same table.  In most families there is one person who loves all in the middle of all the tension.  Their love goes beyond just keeping the peace; but insists on that which is right so there might be good will among all.  Their love does not judge to condemn, but loves to set things right.  Their love for family looks a lot like God’s love for the world.

God’s disposition never changes’ no one is ever cut off from the love of God.  God’s love is inexhaustible and unchangeable.  After John 3:16 says God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, it continues in verse 17, saying: Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  God does not condemn anyone; period!  Some people would love a comma there instead of a period.  We condemn, shame, and guilt ourselves.  We refuse to accept the unconditional love of God that forgives and saves us and suffer under our own condemnation because we reject it.

Judgment is not about destroying the one judged, it is about setting things right.  William Young’s book “The Shack” is about a Mack’s little girl Missy who was abducted and killed by a predatory pedophile.  Mack grieves terribly, blaming himself and God as much as the monster who committed the crime.  God summons him back to the shack where she was murdered, and he comes to know the love of God more deeply.  Eventually, Mack is asked to play the judge, including the role of judging God for what had happened to his daughter and to him.  He has now been so immersed in the love God he no longer feels stuck in his grief and refuses to judge.

Our pride gets in the way of believing God’s love is boundless enough to love us through any circumstance.  Our self-centeredness causes us to get stuck with our own judgments about life; believing more in our own way.  God invites us to place our faith in the love of a Christ child who showed the way by lying down in a manger so we may know we are loved by God.  The love that came down at Christmas was the eternal Son of God; giving up all privilege; trusting his Father who sent him to show heaven’s love would go to all lengths, even to raise him from a grave.  You can nourish whatever part of you still needs to know love of God by giving your life to a love that will go that far to show God’s love.

Loving with Christmas love was captured by the writer of 1 John who insisted we love our sisters and brothers; whether they are related to us by spirit or flesh.  We are to love others by dropping our need to be right in order for things to be right between us.  We are to love others by identifying so closely with others we can feel the pain behind the brokenness.  We are to love others by attaching ourselves to their journey and not letting any little thing get between the love of God that saves us all.

When he was nine years old, Bishara Awad watched his Greek Christina Orthodox father gunned down by an Israeli sniper in front of their home in Jerusalem.  He nourished a bitter heart most of his life.  He would grow up to begin a school, which cared for every kind of child, Jewish, Muslim and Christian.  While praying one day, he felt the Lord telling him he needed to work on the hatred that had built up in his heart after the loss of father.  It came to see it was no different than the hatred he witnessed among the students he was teaching to love others like Christ loved them.  His healing heart let him to see that Jews, Christians, and Muslims were all equally suffering in his conflicted nation.  The love of God begin grow in his heart as he saw how God loved each person and did not recognize the barriers they had created between the people in his land.  

He began to live the Christmas message that God came to bring all people together in love.  Today he and other Christians take Christmas presents to children with disabilities in Bethlehem as a way of demonstrating the love of God.  This is their way of making Christmas a faithful celebration that crosses borders of reconciliation; discovering afresh why God sent his Son.

May all of us discover afresh this Christmas by our gifts of love why God sent God’s Son.

Published in: on December 23, 2011 at 8:41 am  Leave a Comment  

Looking for Joy in all the Wrong Places

A woman and her young daughter went out Christmas shopping.  The mall was, as you might expect, packed.  They skipped lunch because the mother wanted to stay on schedule, but as the day wore on, she became more irritable.  Her feet hurt and patience wore thin.  When they left the last store, the woman turned to her daughter, exasperated, and said, “Did you see the look that salesman gave me?” The little girl replied, “Mommy, he didn’t give it you; you had it when you went in there.

Sometimes when we get to this time of year, we need to sing “Joy to the World” just to remind ourselves that Christmas is about joy, joy, joy.  On this Third Sunday of Advent, the monks, who took the season of Advent way more piously than we, needed the reminder.  Maybe we do too?  So they signaled the season was half-gone and Christmas was coming by instituting Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin meaning “rejoice.”  They were commanded in the midst of their spiritual preparation to include rejoicing.

We get irritable from our shopping and parties; the monks got that way from fasting and repenting.  Advent is a purple season on the liturgical calendar.  That means like Lent before Easter, we’re supposed to fast before we feast; we’re supposed to pray before we play; we’re supposed to purge before we splurge.  We don’t, but we’re supposed to.  Some of the dissipation and fatigue we feel can be traced to this.  It can get pretty gloomy in those wintry stone-cold monasteries ofEurope, so they adapted Advent on the third week to let a little joy in.  That’s why the candle this week is rose-colored—not pink, mind you, for breast cancer awareness—rose, as in the Rose of Sharon, a crocus blossom in the desert, which surprises us in the midst of all that is bare and barren.

C. S. Lewis entitled the autobiography of his early years Surprised by Joy—a line borrowed from a Wordsworth poem.  Joy in life is always a bit of a surprise.  For all his intellectual gifts, the thing that most characterized his writings about the Christian faith was the underlying presence of joy.  Lewis asked, “Why, in the face of all that is declining in the world and decaying in nature and dying in ourselves, is there any joy and not only despair?”  Joy is one of the great gifts of God.  It’s one of the gifts we celebrate in the story of Christmas, when God is joined to us in Jesus Christ.

Where are you finding joy during this season?

Published in: on December 7, 2011 at 2:56 pm  Comments (1)  

Many Moods of Christmas: Child in a Manger

Treat yourself to some time in front of the fire watching the Bing Crosby classic, White Christmas.  It will take you back to simpler days, whether you lived them or not.  Bing and Danny Kaye try to help their old retired Army general save his Vermont Resort during a season without snow.  The dream for a white Christmas is not just romantic; it’s a dream of preserving the business and avoiding bankruptcy and loss.

John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah dreamed of a day when justice and peace will kiss the way Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney.  Zechariah was a priest of Israel, married to Elizabeth, who was barren.  Gabriel appeared to him in the temple; saying he would be a father and his son would be a prophet like Elijah.  Zechariah didn’t receive the news with joy at once, so he was struck mute until the boy was named.  When he did name the boy John, his voice was released, and he could praise God.  The song of Zechariah is called the Benedictus.  It translates in Latin the first words of his praise: “Blessed be the God of Israel”.

Zechariah’s song addresses God’s deliverance of Israelfrom her enemies by delivering on God’s promises of justice and peace.  God’s people have prayed for it, sung about it, and Zechariah’s believes it is happening in the birth of his son.  He says: By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.  These are beautiful words, which dream of a peace in his land where all is made right.

We all dream that the world will be set right and runs fairly.  (Kids )  We want wrongs righted, virtue rewarded, vice punished, and systems working for all, not only those who know the right people or who are the right people.  Zechariah dreams of the day when justice will prevail and peace arrives to those who have been waiting for the dream to come true.

This kiss of justice and peace brings to mind a small modernist plaster figurine by Constantin Brancuci’s, The Kiss.  He depicts two heads that are melding together in a kiss that makes them look conjoined.  To further emphasize their unity, he has arms entwined around each other’s necks.  The two are so connected they appear as one.  Zechariah dreams of justice and peace so intimate with we can’t think of one without the other.

Have you tried to quell dissent by telling people not rock the boat, just play along for the sake of peace?  That pits peace and justice against the other instead of bringing them together.  We do the same thing when we prefer not to ask why things are not right; rather confront what is disturbing the peace.  As long as injustice is the rule, there will never be the righteousness of God and the Peace of Christ.  No justice, no peace!

District Attorney, Craig Watkins has made it a priority to revisit suspect cases.  As of August, twenty two people who were spending years behind bars have been exonerated by DNA evidence; not available when their cases were tried.  They lost their freedom, family and friends because of aggressive and sloppy prosecution along with simple human error.  To his credit, whatever mistakes the renowned Henry Wade made, he preserved the evidence in each case.  The people of the Innocence Project have seen results in attempts to make things right that were wrong.  Every time this happens, the peace of life that was wrongfully taken away begins to be restored as justice served by making things right.

The messiah born of Mary would grow up to bring peace by disturbing the peace as a child in a manger.  The manger of Christ is a picture of inclusion.  Those who gathered around include: the high and low, rich and poor, insiders and outsiders.  God brings the world together around a babe who came to bring peace by overcoming unjust barriers.  Through his birth he brings peace and justice together.  When he sees hunger, he feeds.  When he sees the sick, he heals.  When he see wrong, he confronts.

We who invite Christ in our hearts believe he will bring us a peace that passes understanding.  God does so by making some things right.  God’s righteousness reigns as we put our trust in the babe; allowing the child to bring us peace by casting out all that might keep us from it.  The Christ child is not satisfied to be in our hearts alone.

God desires creation knows the peace God intended in the Garden.  This is a peace we have struggled to know since the Garden, when we went our own way; thinking we know more than God.  Violence toward one another showed up right outside the Garden between two brothers.  Bethlehem was no less violent when Jesus was born that it is today.  When Herod learned Jesus was born the King of the Jews; he ordered boys under age two slain.  He wanted to maintain the peace through fear and intimidation.  Peace won at the tip of a sword or at the passing of an unjust law is not peace.

God won’t rest until peace on earth includes good will among all.  There are many ways we join together at FUMC to join Christ in his work of peace by working to makes things right.  There are neighbors around the church that need us to work beside them to make things right?  I could share my real dreams I have about those possibilities.  Let’s start small.  It has been a rough week for some of you.  Is there a family member you need to do what is right and to right what is wrong?  Are there changes you need to make with a co-worker or someone in the church?

Mapule Ramashala is a black South African woman who moved into a white suburban neighborhood.  When harassment did not intimidate here, twelve youths were arrested trying to burn down her house.  She refused to press charges.  Instead, she met with parents and made arrangements to work together to repair her home.  The young arsonists only had to do community service, and she personally checked on them to and to see how they were doing in school.  The community rallied behind her, accepted her into the neighborhood, and the whole area is different.  That black woman was intent on peace, and she knew that justice meant more than punishment—it meant friendship and good will.  She gave a gift of peace.

The kiss of peace and justice is sweeter than sugarplums.  Will you do whatever it takes to taste it?