“What a Story” – December 18, 2016

“What a Story”

December 18, 2016 – Year A – Advent 4

I have always been puzzled how it is that the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John contain such different accounts of Jesus’ birth.  You would think that something this important to our faith would have a consistent story.  But oh no, no such luck.  If you ask the average church attending person to tell you the Christmas story, they would likely give you the account that most story tellers and movie script writers have used throughout the ages.  It is a little of Matthew’s account and a little of Luke’s account and a whole lot of imagination thrown in. 

I believe we have done one another a dis-service in not telling you that there are 2 distinctly different stories or might I even be so bold as to call them tales.  They are important to our faith – it is true.  But – and this is a big but – the story of a tiny, harmless baby entering the world as an orphan refugee makes for a great opening to a story you want to hear more about.  And so, the scene is set.  Your need for realism and practicality are put on hold.  You are ready to enter into the story.

The fascinating story for today highlights the awe of the Holy Spirit at work.  The writer of Matthew suggests that through God’s Spirit, truth was brought to humanity.  The truth of life being whispered into fullness of being, creativeness being teased into stale boredom, and breathe being drawn into dry bones – all took shape.  The truth of God’s spirit at work is revealed in hearts once cold with indifference now warmed with delight.  The truth of God’s spirit at work is revealed in – dare I say it – a baby! 

The Holy Spirit stirs in dreams.  We are told that Joseph had an astounding dream – angels addressing him – angels reminding Joseph of his lineage as a descendant of David.  When the Holy Spirit is at work there is no holding back.

The story of Joseph draws forth questions from our souls.  We wonder “why was I created?”  “What is the purpose of my being here?”  “Where will I go at the end of this life?”  And by asking those questions, we ponder “what is my life really all about?”  These are the questions that are the beginning of knowing why we need Jesus the Christ.

It is those very real soul questions that lead us to change our very being.  A woman was in my office this past week telling me about her former very expensive drug addiction.  The day her life turned around was when she had spent the last dollar in her pocket, had pawned everything she could, and was shaking from withdrawal after having used cocaine the night before.  She realized that whenever she turned to chemicals to achieve a sense of happiness, she went off to be alone.  She isolated herself from others.  She had lost everything including her partner and children.  She realized she needed help.  She described her former, isolated life as sinful.

What a powerful image of what sin looks like in our lives.  Sin is the choice to minister to ourselves, rather than allowing Christ to minister to us.  Sadly, often we push aside that spiritual help by removing ourselves from community.  We pull away and become ever more isolated.  Some people choose to care for themselves through using drugs or alcohol, while others use more socially accepted means such as shopping, TV watching, or going it alone.  This Advent season is a time when the scripture passages challenge us to look deeply at ourselves and ask ourselves whether we have tried to save ourselves in isolating ways or have we drawn close to God as revealed in Jesus?

Such a question forces us to look into the mirror of our soul and see if Jesus is there filling the empty spaces.  We turn again to the story of Joseph.  It tells of a profound trust in God’s Spirit.  It is interesting to realize that God does not appear to Joseph when he is wide awake and at prayer.  There is no assurance of a burning bush or parting clouds on a mountaintop.  There is only a dream.  Can we trust dreams?  Many of us tend to quickly dismiss our dreams since we only recall them a few moments after we awake.  But for Joseph a dream was enough.. …. A dream was enough …. Is a dream enough for you?

In the tale of Joseph, a dream was all that was needed.  He had been asking many questions.  “What should I do about Mary?”  he pondered.  “What does the law demand?”  “What does my heart tell me?”  The dream answered these big questions. 

Trusting God’s Spirit to guide and provide all that was needed, Joseph carried on.  Do we have such faith, that we too will open ourselves to God’s Spirit, to guide and provide?  That is the gift of Immanuel – which means “Jesus is God-with-us”.

This upcoming Saturday evening we will gather as a worshipping community.  Perhaps your family will be joining you.  We will sing favorite Christmas carols.  We will hear the choir sing beautiful anthems, and we will hear the timeless story of the birth of Jesus, as told in the Gospel Luke.  We will feel good and warm and peaceful.  The lights will be dimmed and we will close the service by singing Silent Night by candlelight.  It is an important day in the church year.  It is the reason we call ourselves Christian, after all.  We celebrate Christ’s birth because his ministry has touched us in a profound way.  Our lives have been changed and there is meaning to all we do, say, and are.  The deep questions about life, death, and eternity all are answered by Christ and the love he expressed throughout his life.

We are invited to enter into the Christmas story as we dream dreams of hope and peace and God’s delight for our lives.  We are filled with the Christmas message as God’s Spirit guides us away from isolation and into community.  We live the Christmas event each day as we love extravagantly, care compassionately, and open our hearts with unending joy.

I draw this message to a close with an affirmation of rebirth and to always listen for angel words, by Ann Weems.

It is not over,
this birthing.
There are always newer skies
into which
God can throw stars.

When we begin to think
that we can predict the Advent of God,
that we can box the Christ
in a stable in Bethlehem,
that’s just the time that God will be born
in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.

Those who wait for God
watch with their hearts and not their eyes,
listening
always listening
for angel words.  Amen.

“A Walk on the Bright Side” – December 11, 2016

“A Walk on the Bright Side”

December 11, 2016 – Year A – Advent 3

 

Clergy throughout British Columbia Conference of the United Church are blessed each Advent season with thoughtful reflections arriving in our computer in-boxes 3 times a week.  Monday’s writing came from Karen Millard and she says:

“ I was so relieved to have the season of Advent arrive this year because in the weeks approaching I was finding myself challenged and challenging Christians and my congregation to live differently in a world that seems to be more angry and broken than ever before within my lifetime. Popular culture today appears to be holding up the worst parts of our humanity. In the political spheres world wide leaders are offering up division, arrogance, power and pride. We have all seen enough examples of this that I won’t even go into details. I have found myself exhausted and weary as I see and hear what people hold up as Christian, as faithful, as truth. And that is why I am so thankful for this advent season because it brings us back to the roots of our faith. The reason Jesus was crucified was because he spoke and lived contrary to the power of the day both religious and political. The reason we as Christians cycle back to the story of his birth every year is because we need to. We live in a broken world, so we all need to be reminded now and again that we were created to live out our faith in times just like these. Christmas is about God breaking into a messy world and filling it with the concrete presence of hope, joy, peace and love. This season reminds us that that is the calling on each of our lives.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul.”[1 ]  My friends do not loose heart – instead live into the story of our faith and break into the broken parts of this world with abundant hope, penetrating peace, exuberant joy, and all encompassing love. No, you may not be able to fix the entire world, but you can reach out to offer healing and care to all within your reach.”  So writes Karen Millard.

I appreciate what Karen has to say because she put into words what I have been feeling and experiencing over the last while.  Her reflection was timely, for on Sunday I attended a wonderful performance called “Cirque Musica.”  The MC for the show offered a give away phrase that has been sitting with me and troubling me.  He said: “family and friends are the reason for Christmas.”   Now, I don’t want to take away the importance of family, nor of friends, but I truly do not believe that family is the reason for the season.  I believe that the reason for Christmas has to do with a person who came into the world shattering all the preconceived expectations.  I believe that the reason for the season is all about a person who was so unexpected that lives where turned upside down.  I believe that the reason we gather here today is not because of family, or friends, but because we know our lives are different all because of Jesus.

So – here I am, standing before you.  I have quoted a reading from a colleague and I have critiqued a phrase that an MC at a lovely performance offered.  Is that what sermons have come down to?  Rest assured that both of these reflections tie into the scripture we heard.

Isaiah 35 describes good news for the Israelites.  They were going to get to return home some day following God’s Holy Way, a highway of promise and delight.  What joy is before God’s people.  Isaiah announces such hope.  It is a time of grace and awe that is before God’s people.

The writer of Matthew also talks about the Holy Way by revealing the impact that Jesus had on the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, and the poor.

If the writer of the Gospel of Matthew were to write today, I suspect he might describe the scene with John the Baptist in this way:  Finally, John decided to settle the thing once and for all and sent a couple of his disciples to put it to Jesus straight.

“John wants to know if you’re the One we’ve been waiting for or whether we should cool our heels a while longer,” they said.

And Jesus said, “You go tell John what you’ve seen around here.  Tell him there are people who sold their seeing-eye dogs and taken up bird watching.  Tell him there are people who’ve traded in aluminum walkers for hiking boots.  Tell him the down-and-out have turned into the up-and-coming and a lot of dead-beats are living it up for the first time in their lives.

Such a re-telling gets your attention, doesn’t it?  Here we have Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist sitting in prison, questioning whether Jesus, the very same Jesus that he baptized, was for real.  And sure enough it is the true Jesus – the one who heals, restores life, and grants joy.

In this Advent season we too are on a journey along The Holy Way.  We see miracles all around us.  A young child takes his or her first step – truly a miracle.  The fentanyl user stops using before a fatal overdose, and turns to Narcotics Anonymous for support – truly a miracle.   Life saving surgery is performed – truly a miracle.   A widow find new love – truly a miracle.  A bitter, lonely individual sees the light on in a church and comes in the open doors – and Christ meets them in the guise of a caretaker – truly a miracle.  A congregation of mainly retired individuals loves, serves, cares, and seeks to journey the Holy Way – truly a miracle.

So, my friends, we journey the Holy Way.  There are flowers blooming and springs of water in the desert.  Jesus is bringing Good News to the homeless and the hungry.  We have an abundance of food to share.  There are mitts and toques, scarves and gloves for those in Penticton who are cold.  Let us not be deceived by glitter and drama, Christ’s message is needed on December 11, 2017 as never before.   The true reason for the season is Jesus Christ.  May we never forget that.  Amen.

 

“Prepared for Amazing Possibilities” – December 4, 2016

“Prepared for Amazing Possibilities”

December 4, 2016 – Advent 2 – Year A

A young girl was working so diligently at her homework that her father became curious and asked her what she was doing.

   “I’m writing a report on the condition of the world and how to bring peace,” she replied.

   “Isn’t that a pretty big order for a young girl?” her father asked.  “Oh, no,” she answered, “and don’t worry.  There are three of us in the class working on it!”

Today’s scripture texts give us some strong directives.  The passage from Hebrew Scripture paints a vision –  a type of map which points to the peaceable kingdom of Shalom.  In the Gospel, John the Baptist calls us to repent, to rid ourselves of those things that distract and weigh us down, in order to be ready to venture with Jesus.  So – let us journey the way of faithfulness as we explore in a little more detail, the text from the prophet Isaiah.

Looking at the scriptural map offered by the prophet Isaiah shows us the rocky terrain of life as well as a view of the valleys of peace and justice.  “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a child will lead them”.   Talk about contrasts!  What kind of idealistic fog has Isaiah been experiencing?  Surely he wasn’t serious?  Or was he?  

Visioning animals that are natural enemies becoming peaceful companions, certainly gives us a different perspective on our world.  Some time ago, the cover of the National Geographic magazine displayed a gorilla cuddling a kitten.  I am sure that Isaiah would have recognized his vision in this picture.  There was the powerful, mighty gorilla, gently caring for the vulnerable kitten.  The powerful and the defenceless together in peace.

There are other visions of God’s peaceable reign that give us hope for the journey.  A colleague, who I’ll call Bill, tells of an unforgettable experience while helping out a Sunday School teacher.  “I need your help. Now!”  said the teacher to my colleague, as she led him down the stairs.  The problem was obvious.  Young Peter was dressed as a shepherd for the Christmas pageant, and he was using his shepherd’s staff to hold the entire class at bay.  He was swinging it around while the rest of the class cowered in a corner.

“Give me that Stick!” said Bill, well out of range of Peter.  “Go to ….(well you can fill in the profanity)!” said the young child Peter. 

Bill walked closer.  Peter swung the staff, and Bill caught it in his hand, and yes, it hurt.  But Bill hung on and so did Peter.  Bill pulled Peter toward him and threw both his arms around the surprised young boy.  Bill held Peter in a bear hug while the child struggled. 

Peter struggled long and hard and shouted all sorts of obscenities.  Bill simply hung on, with his arms around Peter.  Eventually Peters struggling and his curses dissolved into tears.  He released his hold on the staff, and gradually the bear hug turned into a human hug.

“You’re gong to beat the pants off me, aren’t you?” Peter asked.

“Why would I do that” queried Bill.

“Because that is what my dad always does”.

“Yeah.  He comes home drunk all the time and beats me and my mom and everybody except the baby”, said Peter.

“I don’t want to beat you Peter.  I want to be your friend”, proclaimed Bill.

“Nobody wants to be my friend.  Whenever I get a friend I hit them and then we’re not friends any more.”  Peter began to cry again.  By this time, the frightened child was sitting on Bill’s lap, with comforting arms around him.  Peter made no attempt to leave.  Bill wondered if this was the first time he’d ever been cuddled by a man.  Did he know that men can love as well as hurt?

“Are they going to kick me out of the church play?” Peter asked.

“We’d like you to be in the church play, Peter.  But we don’t want you to hit people.  Can you promise not to hit people?”

“No”, said Peter.  There was such sadness in the small child’s voice.  “No, because I just start hitting when I get something like a stick in my hand”.

“Peter”, said Bill.  “Maybe I can help.  I’ll sit right in the front row during the Christmas concert.  And when you feel like hitting somebody with your shepherd’s staff, you just look at me.  And then we’ll both pretend that I’m giving you a nice, warm hug.  Do you think that would work?”

Peter and Bill exchanged knowing glances several times during the Christmas concert.  And Peter got through the whole thing just fine.

Through the loving kindness of Bill, Peter learned that he was lovable.  He could temporarily lay aside his temper and attention seeking behaviours.  He did not have to carry the anger and sadness from his home environment, at least for a short while. 

All the hurt, rejection and cruelty of home was an overwhelming load for a young child.   It was little wonder that he carried an enormous load of anger. How many of us are also burdened by anger, resentment, and unresolved hurts?  Many of us carry a tremendous load, that weighs us down and keeps us captive.  Where do we find an answer?  One of the answers is right here in this sanctuary.  Sitting beside you, in front and behind are other people just like yourself, who have love to share.  Those around you understand some of your hurt, for they too have known pain.  So reach out – in your hurting and in your loving.  That is God’s reality being lived out.

As we think about the experience of Peter and Bill, we are presented with a special model of life.  Thanks to the patience and compassion of Bill, Peter learned that at least for that moment, he was O.K.  Young Peter needed to pick up the essentials of life.  He needed love, and acceptance, and understanding.  

It is not just the young child Peter who needs to know the certainty of love.  Surely that is the common need for all of humanity.  The bully of the street, the addict, the prostitute, the terminally ill, and the abused, all need the certainty of love and acceptance. 

It is not an issue of some people being loveable and others not.  It is not a case of some people being more valuable than others.  The common human condition is the longing for acceptance.  To have a place – to belong – to be valued, that is the quest for all people.  The promised time proclaimed by Isaiah points to a way of understanding, peace and harmony.  The journey towards that time calls us to walk with one another, the way of compassion and sensitivity. 

The cartoonist Lynn Johnston, understands the need for love.  In one particular comic strip she show young Michael being an absolute twit.  He throws temper tantrums, destroys things, and generally acts like a typical 6 year old.  Finally, Mother’s patience ends and she packs him off to bed.

“Aren’t you going to kiss me goodnight”, young Michael asks.

“To tell you the truth”, says Mom, “when you act like that, I just don’t feel like kissing you at all”.

“But Mom”, says Michael.  “That’s when I need it most!”

Long ago, the prophet Isaiah offered the people a vision of hope and new possibilities. Today that vision of promise sustains and encourages us.  It is a view that calls us to shed the excess baggage of life, and embrace the fullness that faithfulness has to offer.  May our journey of this Advent season be filled with love – both given and received.  May we together seek the peace-filled way.  Amen.