Monday, December 28, 2015

What she treasured in her heart

Scripture Lesson: Luke 2: 41-52, NT page 59 Sermon Title: What she treasured in her heart It has been said that the first person enlisted in every war, regardless of nation or era, is God. We all, especially in times of great need, call on God to support our cause, and in a war, with desperation there are individuals and nations who not only call on God, but enlist God in supporting their cause. This tendency makes the words of Abraham Lincoln regarding the Civil War especially noteworthy: "Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.” Many are not as wise as Lincoln, but assume that God just goes along with them to support them in whatever effort they so choose. Surely, God loves those whom I love, they say. Surely, the Lord also hates those who I hate, only pays attention to the sins that I pay attention to and ignores those sins that I deny. This kind of person deals with Scripture in the same way, reading the Bible not to be challenged but to be congratulated. Their Bible is short and focuses on those passages that justify their way of life, validates their self-righteousness, while ignoring those passages that call them to question what they already believe. You know the kind of people that I’m talking about. The great irony of the slaveholder in the south is not that he held men and women against their will, abused them and forced them to work without pay, but that the slaveholder committed such an atrocity while going to church every Sunday, while reading from Scripture each day, while pledging support to Missionary efforts in Africa and claiming, both outwardly and inwardly, that he was a dedicated Christian. The same is true of Nazi’s in Germany. They did not think of their cause as evil, but rooted in their interpretation of the Gospel of John, they sought to exterminate an entire race of people fueled by their warped reading of Scripture which blamed Christ’s crucifixion on the Jews. The one who murders the doctor providing abortions is the same. As is the member of the KKK. It is his faith and his reading of Scripture that fuels his evil, and Christ - well, in the same way, he and all those who are like him, they assume that Christ is right there with them, as though the Lord Almighty were something that they could slip into their pocket and take along for the ride to justify their cause, not realizing that they've been traveling in one direction for some time while having left Jesus behind back in Jerusalem. We read in our Second Scripture Lesson: "Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day's journey." A day's journey feels like a very long time to go without realizing that your child is gone. But I won’t be too judgmental; just because I haven't done it yet doesn't mean that I won't. The premise of the Home Alone movie can seem pretty ridiculous, that a pair of responsible parents would make it half way to Paris before realizing that they left their 8-year-old son back at the house, but I’m telling you, now that I know how crazy life can get with two kids I’m not so judgmental. Dad goes one way in one car and Mom goes the other way in another car. Life moves fast. You think it won’t ever happen, but you hear those nightmare stories of the family going to a funeral and little Billy got left behind to spend the afternoon at the funeral home all by himself – it can happen. If it happened to Mary and Joseph, it can happen to you too. And the greater point of this story is not that his parents left him behind assuming he was with the other children or with an aunt or uncle whom they were traveling with, but that his parents assumed he would be going along with them. They assumed that he would be following their travel agenda. That he would just go along with them on their way – after all, they are the adults here, but Christ is so clearly exercising a mind and a will all his own, so he is not following close behind the rest of the group but decided to stay awhile back at the Temple. The Lord, you see, he’ll decide on his own. He is the incarnate son of the God of Moses. And you remember what happened when Moses asked the Lord in the burning bush, “who will I tell them has sent me?” and the Lord said, you tell them, “I am” has sent you. “I am who I am,” is the name of the Lord, and this is a very different name from, “I am whoever you want me to be.” God is not whoever we want him to be. God, the Great “I am,” will be whoever he decides to be so Mary had to learn early that God would also go where he wanted to go. And the truth of God’s independence takes on a new meaning when God is a 12-year-old boy. I don’t imagine that when Joseph and Mary looked around the caravan and noticed that he was missing that they understood. Instead I imagine that when Joseph and Mary finally found him, they were that mix of relief and anger that all parents feel after they find the child they lost sight of and then finally find again. You can see Mary running to him with tears in her eyes when she finally spots him. She rushes to him and wraps her arms around his neck in a hug, but it’s the kind of hug that gradually tightens into a strangle. “I thought I’d lost you!” she says, but then, “Do you know how scared we were? I’m going to ring your neck!” Jesus is independent, and with that independence comes all kinds of fear, all kinds of danger. When it comes to Mary and Joseph’s frustration with Jesus’ independence most parents can relate. Already I've noticed myself not really wanting to let our daughters become their own people or make their own choices, because I want them to either stay little or to like all the same things that I like and enjoy doing all the same things that I enjoy. At bedtime they pick their own bedtime stories, and I try not to manipulate their decision – but those Bernstein Bear books are so long. And Pinkalicious is so boring. So sometimes I’ll pretend that I just can’t find them on the bookshelf. I don’t have the power to change what they like and don’t like but I do have the power to hide some of those books under the bed. When they’re little it’s easy. They’ll mostly wear what you want them to. They’ll go where you take them, but more and more they make decisions on their own, more and more they are their own people with their own wills, and this is how it’s supposed to be. Our first pediatrician told us that as soon as the umbilical cord is cut it’s a parent’s job to help her children be functioning and independent – but that’s hard, especially when the child starts doing things his parent doesn't like – if he starts to grow up and becomes his own man before his parents are ready to let him go. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. "When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." Surely his parents must have known that this child would be no typical 12-year-old after his immaculate conception and everything else the angels told them, but none of that has kept any of us from making the same assumptions. Still, far too many Christians believe they are the ones who get to set Christ’s agenda. So the preacher gives a long and boring sermon whether the congregation likes it or not. And when some of them start to fall asleep he just talks louder and gets angrier, as though the problem were the congregation’s resistance to the message and not the one proclaiming the message. He just keeps on not realizing that he left Christ behind back in Jerusalem. The same is true of the teacher. She doesn’t know it but she started sounding to the children the way the adults sound in the Peanuts movies (wha wha wha). She has the choice of changing her tune, reaching their level, incorporating some new methods, but instead she just keeps on going with the same old stuff, moving in this other direction getting farther and farther from the source of joy and fulfillment. This is the human condition! We don’t want to be the ones who have to change, but we can’t control Jesus – so if you want a part of him it’s going to have to be you who turns around. He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" We should have known, but so often, We imagine that he rides with our caravan – after all, we’re his disciples. He supports our causes – after all, we’re his people. He votes with us – after all, we’re the Christians in this race. And maybe that’s sometimes true, but we must never be so bold as to assume that we set Christ’s agenda, for Christ, even as a 12-year-old boy had a mind of his own: He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" They were surprised to find him there, some place he went on his own, without their permission. But this is the case – he goes where he will – and if you want to know him, don’t ask him to ride along with you on your way. Do everything in your power to instead follow where he leads. Rather than assume that he’ll rubber stamp our bad habits, we must be bold to listen when he calls us to change. We ask him to preserve our way of life while ignoring his call to a completely new way of life. And we hope he is with us where we are, not realizing we may have left him behind. If you’ve realized this to be the case, don’t keep going. Turn around – for he’s waiting for you back at the temple. Don’t hold resentment tighter. Forgive! Don’t hate more deeply. Love. Don’t suffer anymore. Repent. Our call is to take him and to treasure him in our hearts, for it is there that he changes us and shapes us, not according to our agenda, but to his. So hear his teaching. Treasure it in your heart. And follow where he leads, for his is the way of life. Amen.

For a child has been born to us

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 9: 2-7 and Luke 2: 1-14, NT page 58 Sermon Title: For a child has been born for us This is a high stakes kind of night. Christmas Eve is a big deal. I stand up here and I know that this is a high stakes sermon. I’ve been spending time thinking about what I would say, how I’d look. I went to the barber shop on Tuesday and my barber was surprised to see me back again so soon as I’d had a haircut just two weeks prior, but then he says, “Oh yeah, it’s your boss’s birthday this week. I guess you have to look your best.” “And not only that,” I said, “there’s going to be people here on Christmas Eve that I haven’t seen since Easter, so I really want to look sharp.” You have a lot on your mind too, right? Christmas Eve is high stakes for all of you too. I know it is. They’ll be big meals to make, and you want them to be perfect, not like that turkey that Clark Griswold cuts into in Christmas Vacation. And you’ve decorated the house, but you don’t want your decorations to be like his lights that don’t turn on. Plus, you’re hosting family and friends hoping and praying that Cousin Eddie doesn’t show up in the driveway. You want Christmas to be perfect and I bet that most of you have been working hard to get as close to perfect as you can get. There’s a lot at stake tonight. A lot of traditions. A lot of expectations. A lot of hopes. Really it’s been that way all week. On Monday night we went caroling. About 30 of us met here in the church. Several of the church’s deacons, several choir members. We broke up into 3 groups so that we could spread out and make it to several households. I was in the group that went out to the Bridge. There are five members of our church who now live at this retirement community, and I was expecting the five of them to listen to us sing, but the thing I wasn’t expecting was that every resident of the Bridge was waiting for us when we showed up to sing at 6:15. And there were just seven of us – Greg Martin, Frank and Gloria Dale, Cindy Baxter, me and our two daughters, the seven of us were standing up there in front of all the residents at the Bridge who had just finished their dinner. Right before we started singing one of those church members who lives out there pulled me aside and said, “You know, some of the groups who have come out here caroling have not been very good at all.” This is high stakes stuff. High stakes. Christmas is high stakes, and Christmas Eve – we’ll, this is as high stakes as it gets. You hope no child is disappointed. You hope your turkey isn’t dry. You hope Cousin Eddie waits a couple days to empty the septic system on the RV. There’s all this pressure, and I think that’s thanks to the world that we live in. For the past two months the commercials have done us in. Go to Kroger for the food. Go to Lowe’s for an inflatable Santa Clause. Go to Walmart and ruin your day. There’s a lot to buy and a lot to do, and the stakes are high and it’s all up to you. You’re the one who has to bake the perfect turkey. You’re the one who has to enhance everyone’s Christmas cheer with the right decorations. You’re the one who has to be sure that Granny gets the right kind of night gown. This is a high stakes season and it’s all up to you, right? No. Not right. Maybe according to the world, but not according to the Bible. The big news around here lately has to do with the decorations on local McDonald’s windows. Here in Maury County the owners of the local McDonald’s have made a point of making their December decorations rooted in the true meaning of the season, so their window decorations are obviously Christian. Santa Clause is there, Frosty the snowman is there, but the main focus is on Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus. This blatant focus on Jesus has surprised some people and has been celebrated by others who worry that as a society we are forgetting what Christmas is really all about, and I agree with that. We’ve gone too far but we’ve gone too far not just because we started saying, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” we’ve gone too far because we starting thinking that the success or failure of Christmas rests with us. So here’s what I want you to do. I want you to remember how to wish for something and how to believe in miracles. Stop worrying about whatever’s in the oven for just a minute. Stop thinking about what’s been bought and what might be forgotten. Stop thinking about what’s left for you to do before tomorrow morning and just listen to this: “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” “To you,” the angel said. Not, “By you,” or “Because of you,” the angel said that the child was born “to you.” A present. The center and reason for the whole thing. A child who was born “to you.” And the gift of this child is set before the backdrop of a census, a decree that went out from Emperor Augustus “that all the world should be registered.” If it weren’t for the census you know that Joseph and Mary never would have traveled from the town of Nazareth to the city of David called Bethlehem, but what’s so interesting is that they had to go at all. I mean, what kind of a person has to validate himself by counting how many people he has power over? That’s what a census is for. It’s the kind of data that we use to create our legacies. He wanted the historians to be thinking: Don’t you remember how the population boomed under Emperor Augustus? Don’t you remember how we flourished under his leadership? While he was our Emperor the turkeys were never dry, the presents were always wrapped, and the Cousin Eddie’s were finally domesticated like the barbarians of Gaul. Now that’s the part of Christmas that’s been stolen from us. We stopped acting like Shepherds who have received something and started acting like Emperors with something to prove. You can call it X-Mas all you want and it won’t ruffle my feathers. Wish me Happy Holidays and serve me my coffee in a red cup all you want, it won’t hurt my feelings, because the part of Christmas that I want back is the part about laying down my heavy burden. Everybody wants this to be the Christmas that goes down in history: Do you remember the party that she had? Do you remember the time she got me the perfect gift? Do you remember how he had a Lexus in the driveway? Do you remember what I had to do to get that bicycle put together? I – I – I. Me – me – me. But Christmas is not up to me. Christmas is not up to you. It’s up to God. “To you, a child has been born.” “To you a son is given.” And in him is the promise that your legacy has not so much to do with how well you’ve done or how good people think you are, for you are defined not by the gifts that you give but by this one great gift that you have received. To you. To you – a savior is born. To you – the gift of salvation has come. To you – forgiveness. To you – redemption. To you – joy. For a child has been born to you and Holy is his name. On those who lived in a land of deep darkness – a light has shined. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; And he is named – Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Amen.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Story Behind the Song

Scripture Lessons: Micah 5: 2-5a and Luke 1: 39-45 Sermon Title: The Story Behind the Song I was having lunch with a couple members of our church this week. The three of us were talking about a new mission of our church – a mission structured by our own Robin Watson and the Housing Coalition of South Central Tennessee. Part of this organization’s mission, the part that our church has been getting involved in, has to do with renovating existing houses owned by elderly members of our community who have trouble doing the work themselves or paying someone else to do it. So far, thanks to Robin, Jackie Lawson, James Marshall, and several others, our church has been involved in improving three houses, and to raise some money for a few more, Robin suggested a fund raiser, where you can select your least favorite hymn from our hymnal, and for $100 you can ensure that it will not be sung again for a full year. I don’t worry whether or not this campaign will be successful, judging from some of your opinions of my hymn choices, I worry that this campaign might be too successful. And if we were to start the campaign during Advent, we could probably fund renovations for half the houses in the city. I know that you don’t love all the hymns we sing during this season of Advent especially, but remember, there’s more to a song than whether or not you like the tune. There’s even more to a song than the words, because sometimes it’s the story behind the song that makes the hymn worth singing. Sometimes it’s the circumstance that caused the writer to write. The hardship that inspired the poet to put his feelings to paper. Sometimes that’s what makes the hymn valuable and worthy of inclusion in the worship service. That’s the case with many of these hymns we sing during Advent, and it’s most obviously true one of the most popular hymns for Christian worship – Amazing Grace. You know the song. It’s been sung by everyone from Elvis Pressley to President Barak Obama who sang it himself during the memorial service for Reverend Clementa Pinckney who was shot in Charleston, South Carolina. This song is embraced by white and black. It’s been a tool for racial reconciliation. But did you know that it was written by a slave trader? The details are foggy and the story is probably much more legend than fact, but the story behind the song only adds to its strength, and the details generally agreed upon are that “by 1745, [John] Newton was enlisted in the slave trade, running captured slaves from Africa to, ironically, Charleston, S.C. After he rode out a storm at sea in 1748, he found his faith. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1764 and became an important voice in the English abolitionist movement. [And] at that time he wrote the autobiographical Amazing Grace.” Now knowing that Amazing Grace is autobiragraphical brings strength to the words – because the blind man who now sees is a living, breathing man. The wretch who’s been saved – you now know in what way he was a wretch and you know who it is that saved him. The lost one who’s been found – he’s no different from you. He’s no different from me. Knowing the story behind the song gives the words some new strength, and that’s the case with all kinds of music. Behind so many Taylor Swifts songs is the memory of a breakup. You know that the force behind Aretha Franklin’s voice when she demands some R-E-S-P-E-C-T – all that passion comes from her true desire for equality, dignity, respect – in a society of segregation and discrimination. The songs that we sing this time of year are the same in that many of them, all of them surely, have a story behind the song. If you picked up one of the Advent Devotionals provided by the Christian Education Committee, the one titled, Hark the Glad Sound, that gives a daily reading along with a familiar hymn, then you may already know that William Dix who wrote, What Child Is This? was a manager for an insurance company, and in 1865 he asked the same question of Joseph and Mary that he asked himself when he held his newborn children – “What child is this, who, laid to rest, On Mary’s lap is sleeping?” That’s the same question that every father and mother ask – who is this little miracle that’s just been handed to us? I remember all too well the night our oldest daughter was born. The nurse brought her into our hospital room, handed her to us, and then turned to leave. “Wait a minute!” we said, “are you just going to leave her with us?” The responsibility. The honor and the burden of being entrusted with a newborn child – that’s big enough, but can you imagine being entrusted with the Son of God? “This, this is Christ the king, Whom shepherds guard and angels sing; Haste, haste to bring him laud, The babe, the son of Mary!” There’s a story behind the Song, and the story for today stands behind a song that you know but that we didn’t read. You may have noticed that our 2nd Scripture Lesson ends in a strange place. The part that we read is not nearly so familiar as the part that we did not read. While our reading from the Gospel of Luke ended with verse 45, it’s verses 46 to 55 that you know so well. These verses make the very first Christmas Carol ever sung – the song that Mary sings – the Magnificat it’s called, and you know most of it because it’s ancient and it’s beautiful, and with this song she says what we all want to say if only we had the words: “My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; For the Mighty One has done great things for me, And holy is his name.” You know the song and it is powerful, just the words alone are powerful. It is even more powerful when set to music. But did you ever notice that Mary doesn’t sing in the presence of the angel Gabriel. She doesn’t sing this song after hearing that she would be the mother of the child who would assume the throne of his ancestor David. The story behind the song is that Mary sings in Elizabeth’s house. Maybe you know already why that’s the case, because it would have been the same with you. The phone rings with the news you wanted to hear. You smile, you’re excited because you got the job you wanted, but you don’t sing for joy until you tell your mother. Or your heart breaks, but you don’t cry – you don’t really cry until you find your way home through a fog of disappointment to that safe easy chair in your grandmother’s living room. She pours the tea and the speaks the words, “Honey, what happened?” That’s when you finally feel, not when it happens, but when you are in a place where you can put your guard down, be yourself, know that you can put your pretentions and your armor away. Elizabeth was her relative, and scared as she must have been, pregnant Mary set out and “went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Do you know how good it must have felt to hear those words? It must have felt as good as sitting on her mother’s lap. Safe and warm. It must have felt as good as resting her head on her father’s strong shoulder. Reassuring. Steady. Present. It’s hard when these people are gone, because flesh and blood does us so much good. Both my grandmothers are gone now. One was a painter, and as a child my favorite food were these yeast rolls that she’d bake in her kitchen. In my mind’s eye I can see her there and I know that it’s yeast rolls that she’s baking because she has toilet paper stuck up her nose – the flour would dry her nostrils out so she’d protect herself by using the toilet paper – and she made me those rolls as often as I’d ask, and she’d listen whenever I had something to say. My other grandmother – she made dressing. It was serious dressing, with turkey parts and a boiled egg, and bay leaves. She wasn’t the warm, sit on my lap kind of grandmother – she was the wear pantie hose to the beach with her swim suit kind of grandmother – but I don’t know if there is anyone who was ever more proud of me than she was, and maybe that’s the thing I’ve missed so much since she died. It hit me at Thanksgiving because there on the stove was her dressing made by my mother who learned the recipe, and there in the oven were the rolls baked by my father who mastered the art of my other grandmother’s yeast rolls, and I was crouching down in the kitchen to watch them bake through the oven window fighting back tears because the flesh and blood of these grandmother’s that gave me so much comfort is gone. Now I know they’re with me, but there’s something about human touch. There’s something about how Elizabeth’s physical body, the smell of her home and the taste of her cooking – there’s something about Elizabeth the person that helped Mary to sing. In that house, she went from a scared young pregnant girl – to “My soul magnifies the Lord!” She left behind the fear and shame of being unmarried – and instead proclaimed, “My soul rejoices in God my Savior.” There is something about Elizabeth’s house. Just like there’s something about a mother’s lap, a father’s shoulder, a grandmother’s cooking – there’s something about Elizabeth, flesh and blood. That’s part of the story behind the song, but there’s more to it than just that, because Mary’s song isn’t about Elizabeth, it’s about Jesus. What it is about Jesus exactly that Mary knows and is trying to tell us makes me think of one of those old preacher stories that get told again and again. Maybe you’ve heard it – a little girl calls out in the night for her daddy. He rushes into her room and she tells him that she’s afraid. “Well don’t worry honey. You’re going to be fine, now let me go back to sleep,” her father says. “But daddy,” pleads the daughter, “won’t you stay here with me?” You can imagine his face now – and so you know that it was more self-serving than faithful when he said, “You don’t need me to stay with you. Don’t you know that Jesus is always with you to protect you?” “But daddy,” the little girl says, “I need someone here with some skin.” With some skin. With a lap for children to sit in. With a shoulder for the hurting to cry on. With a hand to hold and a voice to speak and footsteps to follow in. That’s the rest of the story behind this song of Mary’s. The Lord is coming – and he’s coming in flesh and blood. Amen.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Their shame into praise

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 12: 2-6 and Zephaniah 3: 14-20, OT page 877 Sermon Title: Their shame into praise I love Christmas cards. I bet that you love Christmas cards too, and I hope that you receive a lot of them because they’re so nice to get. The thing that I love the most about Christmas cards is seeing how my friends, who I remember from high school or college, well I knew them before they ever dreamed of becoming the respectable people who now grace the front of their Christmas cards. It’s so good to see them. The kids grow each year. Dad’s hairline recedes more each year. And Mom’s getting better and better at maintaining that smile while saying, “sit still” to her children through gritted teeth. These cards bring with them more than Christmas cheer, don’t they? I was a part of a conversation just last Wednesday. One of us was about to get those Christmas cards out, another already had, and the third said, “Well, I’m thinking that this year we’ll send out a Happy New Year’s Card.” People are serious about Christmas Cards. You feel good if you get them out early, you feel guilty if you don’t get them out in time, and we were shamed because we got our first one a full month ago. These friends of ours – they so have it together that they sent out a Happy Thanksgiving Card – and if that doesn’t make you ashamed about not getting your Christmas Card out by Christmas I don’t know what will. So on the ball as to get out a Thanksgiving Card. Puts us all to shame, doesn’t it? And with it came an announcement that dad got a promotion. Oldest son is six, but has learned to read, and youngest son is four but is going off to medical school in the Spring. I remember one Christmas; my grandfather was reading one of those Christmas letters that are usually really nice to receive. You get an update on what all has been going on, who’s been to camp and who’s playing the piano, all that stuff, but my grandfather was so offended that he said what I think is a word he just made up. He read the sentence about where all this family had been on vacation, and he said, “Well, this is so full of braggadocio I don’t want to read another word.” I’m not sure that “braggadocio is a word,” but you know what he means. This year we already sent him a Christmas Card, but we’ll be keeping a vacation report to ourselves. Of course the point of the Christmas letter, just like the point of the Christmas card – it’s just to say, “Merry Christmas” and let me tell you how we’ve been doing. You are receiving one because you are loved, but sometimes, sometimes these things, they inspire a little bit of envy. So the wife puts down the Christmas Letter and says to her husband, “Would you look at that; the Johnson’s have been to Paris?” and he knows exactly what she’s trying to say. In the same way the husband puts down the Christmas Card from the out of town friends and says to his wife, “Would you look at Sally. Doesn’t she look great? I wonder if she’s been working out or something?” That sounds like an innocent question, but his wife looks into his eyes and wonders what this picture – meant to say nothing more than “Merry Christmas” has inspired in her husband’s mind. Christmas Cards. We put our best foot forward for these things. If it’s a family picture that’s going out to all our friends and family we want to look our very best, like a family who has it all together and is doing just fine. And sometimes we are – I suppose that’s what we call normal. That’s what we hope for each Christmas. A tree, presents under it, a nice dinner where everyone is thankful and happy – but the truth is that sometimes Cousin Eddie shows up with his Rottweiler who chokes on a bone under the dining room table. The truth is that sometimes not everyone who you want to be around the dining room table is there, and sometimes there’s someone there who you wish wasn’t. The truth is – sometimes that smile on everyone’s face is covering up any matter of brokenness. What’s normal at Christmas? I suppose we project our Christmas hopes and aspirations on our Christmas cards, but the reality – the reality is different. I ran by a man on Friday morning. He was sitting in his car with the window rolled down. I could smell his cologne from 10 feet away, and it made me wonder, what smell is he trying to cover up? You look at a woman with too much make-up, sunglasses too dark. A smile too bright. A laugh too loud. An attitude too cheery – because we are all using whatever is available to keep the world from seeing the hurt that’s really there. I love the Christmas Cards – they say, “Merry,” “Bright,” “Joy,” and “Happy,” but what so many of us are ready to say is that “I am a broken man in need of a savior.” Maybe that’s you, maybe it’s not – and if it’s not than thanks be to God for you are not as normal as you are miraculous to have the peace that so many are longing for. 2 parents and a dog. 2.5 children and a wife – don’t you be fooled into thinking that such a thing is normal, for such a family is nothing less than a miracle. Have you ever seen Christmas at a nursing home? Or at a prison. Have you ever seen Christmas at a prison? We see these pictures, and not just on the Christmas Cards, we get this image in our minds of a turkey and tree and lights and love but don’t you think for a minute that the perfect Christmas you have in your mind is a normal Christmas, because Christmas for a whole lot of people in this world will be very different. Last Sunday a man walked up to our church. You might have seen him. He was carrying a big sack, a green duffle bag with straps and inside that bag was his every possession. His clothes, his bed, an old Folgers can with dry grass and leaves that he used to start the fire that would keep him warm at night. It turns out that he’s the kind of person who rides trains from one place to the next, and he was heading south to the Gulf Coast. Where will he be on Christmas? To take seriously our second Scripture Lesson is to take seriously the promise that regardless of where he is on Christmas Day, with the promise of the Christ child comes the promise that God will bring him home. In verse 20 we read: “At that time, I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.” This word from the obscure book of Zephaniah speaks to the man who wanders from place to place. The man who has left something and hopes to find something else. The man who told me “that ridding the train is a good way for a man to lose himself, but it is also a good way to get found.” The promise of Christmas according to the book of Zephaniah is a promise that he will be one who gets found. Now that’s a different idea than a lot of what floats around this time of year. According to Zephaniah this isn’t the season for sugar plumbs and elves and toys for good girls and boys. According to Zephaniah, The child who will receive nothing on Christmas morning The child who will hear her parents say that Santa Clause just couldn’t make it to the house this year. The child who was sure that this year would be different but it wasn’t – can you hear in this prophecy the promise that one day she will sing for joy? We want to put our best foot forward in times like these. We want to be OK already, but that’s not Christmas you see. Christmas isn’t about getting all the perfect presents underneath the tree and worrying that someone might be disappointed – Christmas is about the promise that in all this time that you’ve spent trying to prove that you’re not a disaster, God has been working “to remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.” This time of year – it’s about a gift that we’re too often afraid to admit that we need. That’s what I know this church wants for every child in this entire county. Every year I see that pile of presents for the children who might go without. A full 80 children in this community will have a gift on Christmas morning thanks be to God, thanks be to you. And to top it all, there’s a mother at the county jail. Last Tuesday, thanks to one of you who made it happen, she signed her name to some little gift tags. On Christmas morning she won’t be there by the tree, but her children will open up presents from their mother because one of you was bold enough to buy those presents on her behalf – one of you was faithful enough to this promise in the book of Zephaniah that a piece of it will be true on Christmas. Our focus this time of year – it can’t be on ourselves and it can’t be on the presents. Our focus must be on the God who, like a warrior will bring victory. Who will rejoice over you with gladness, Who will renew you in his love – and not just you – for Christmas is the time when imperfect, broken, hurting people rejoice knowing that the savior is born. “Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; Let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, For great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A refiner's fire

Scripture Lessons: Malachi 3: 1-4 and Luke 1: 68-79 Sermon Title: A refiner’s fire The annual Christmas parade is tomorrow evening, and West 7th Street, which is truly an ideal street for a parade, will be ready. In fact, you could probably make the case that West 7th Street has been ready for the Christmas parade since before Thanksgiving. The wreathes have been up on the lamp posts, the store fronts downtown have been decorated. Columbia is ready – we are prepared for the grand Marshall of the Christmas parade to arrive. I had hoped to be named the grand marshal myself, but I lost out to Santa Clause. Now even if I’m a little jealous, as we drink that hot chocolate provide by the Fellowship Committee on the front steps of our church I’ll be prepared to cheer as he rides by on that great antique firetruck. To prepare for Santa Clause our city cleans the street and calls on the marching band. Our own Millie Landers rehearses her young dancers to somehow dance as one while also processing down the street. This whole display that welcomes Santa Clause into Columbia requires so much preparation – we need to be ready – we want our city to look her best whenever an out of town guest comes to visit. The children know this too, especially when that visiting guest is Santa. On Monday night not only will they be in attendance to watch the parade, but the children will probably have already prepared their lists, and in some way or another, prepared their reputation knowing that the old song has some truth: “You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry You’d better not pout; I’m telling you why” because Santa Clause is coming to town. When it comes to the city of Columbia and the Christmas parade, we prepare the way adults prepare – we prepare by putting our best foot forward as though Santa were like any other out of town guest. The house must be cleaned and decorated. But when it comes to children – they prepare a different way. They prepare with a time of purification, you might call it. This time of year they are mindful of their behavior knowing that good children will receive gifts and bad children coal. For them, Santa Clause coming to town is an event that must be prepared for – but you prepare by preparing your life and not your house. That almost sounds like the prophet Malachi. Bible scholars know little about the author of this book, little about the historical events that prompted this prophet to write, but what is clear is that Malachi knows that someone is coming to town and knows that with his coming preparation is necessary – but it is not the kind of preparation that we see on the eve of our Christmas parade – you don’t prepare for his coming by sweeping the streets and putting up lights – you prepare for his coming by purifying your heart, mind, and soul – for the one who is coming is “like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.” According to Suzanne Richard, professor of Old Testament at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, a fuller – or one who used fuller’s soap – was the ancient world’s version of a dry cleaner. Clothes soaking in lye were stomped as you might imagine a group of people would stomp on grapes to make wine. The clothes were then spread out on the ground to be bleached by the sun in what was called a fuller’s field, which was always outside the city or town. It’s significant what people put outside a city or town – the dump, the cemetery, the jail, and the fuller who no doubt used the kind of lye that would clean those clothes according to his customer’s specifications so he probably used a pretty serious cleaning agent. If the one who is coming is like “fuller’s soap” then don’t imagine one of those “Dove Soap” commercials where the soap is so gentle as not to irritate the skin – the sales pitch for fuller’s soap would be that it is so abrasive that it will bleach that skin right off. The book of Malachi is about a coming messenger whose sole purpose is to say, “He is coming. The Lord is coming. So get ready. Be prepared, for he will be like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap to all who are defiled and impure.” If you ask me, the fuller’s soap is disturbing enough with its imagery of harsh cleaning agents, feet stomping, and being left to dry out in the sun, but have you ever seen a refiner’s fire? I had the opportunity to tour one of the two aluminum recycling plants in Mount Pleasant. It’s an incredible place, amazing really. You have to put on these safety glasses, a helmet, and a protective coat before you go in and once you do – the tour begins with a look at the finished product. The finished product from the process is called an ingot. The ingot is a great big slab of refined aluminum, but to make an ingot you have to start with used or unrefined aluminum, so the next part of the tour is looking at these big piles of car parts, stacks of old computers, bicycles, soft drink cans, and old wire. This part of the plant is so full of junk that the trucks and bulldozers have special tubeless tires that won’t puncture when running over scrap metal. All of this junk is placed in a furnace and the furnace building is one of the hottest places I’ve ever been. It’s one of those places where it feels like your eyes are sweating. It’s so hot in there you can almost see the heat, but you can go up in the control room and watch as the junk is melted until the impurities – the paint from the drink can, the plastic casing on the wire - all those impurities are burnt off to create something new and pure. I think of that when I read, “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” Now here’s something interesting. The Bible uses silver and I’ve been telling you about aluminum, and these two metals are two of the most reflective of all the metals. When aluminum is heated and purified something called a “lighting sheet” is created so that the metal has a mirror like quality. Apparently that’s also true for silver, that when it’s heated the silver smith knows that his metal is pure because he can see his reflection in it. Think about that then. The metal is refined when it reflects the maker’s image. We were created in God’s image, but easily enough we gathered impurities the way a white sweater gathers stains, the way metal is painted and wrapped and treated. The human condition is one of starting out pure in the Garden of Eden, but because our creator instilled in us a capacity to choose for ourselves, so our decisions, our circumstance, and our world has corrupted and defiled what was once pure. Refining is what we need, and you know it as well as I do. It doesn’t sound like a wonderful process, but when you look out on the world can you really think for a moment that everything is as it should be? Just this week the shooting in San Bernardino is the one that got the attention. The two suspects wounded 17, killed 14 before they died themselves in a gunfight with police, but what’s worse, back in October the Washington Post reported, “So far in 2015, we’ve had 274 days and 294 mass shootings.” 274 days and 294 mass shootings. It’s so hard to believe I double checked this statistic twice. Something is wrong. And some blame the guns. Some blame our health care system, saying the care we provide the mentally ill is inadequate. Others blame the politicians, assuming that what we need are better laws. While others blame parents, thinking that if children were just loved than they wouldn’t turn into monsters. Reading from our Scripture lessons this morning, there is no guidance with it comes to who we might blame or how we might make all this right. The message for today is that one is coming who will. And he will not tolerate the kind of denial that distracts us from the real issues. He will not tolerate the half-hearted apology or the lie that masquerades as truth. No – and “who can endure on the day of his coming” is one question, but “will we endure if he doesn’t” is another. A new day is dawning, and Scripture is clear that getting to that new day is as painful as being washed with fuller’s soap, being refined in the fire, it’s like a mother giving birth to a new child. Indeed, there is weeping before the shouts of joy. There is confession before forgiveness and purification before redemption. John the Baptist, born of Zechariah the Priest, told us to get ready for it. Therefore, we have in our Second Scripture Lesson the promise of what is to come: The dawn from on high will break upon us, To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace. We have yet to learn the ways of peace. But he is coming, and he will teach us. Amen.