Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sermon for First Sunday after Christmas

(Sermon 12/28/08 - Luke 2:22-40)

Sing We Now of Christmas: Joy to the World

“Joy to the World” was written by Isaac Watts in 1719. Watts was a pastor and theologian, and a prolific writer of hymns. Several of his hymns are still found in our United Methodist Hymnal today, including “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” Watts often borrowed from the scriptures for his hymns, and “Joy to the World” is no exception. If you read Psalm 98:4-9, you will notice that Watts adapts these verses for this, one of the most familiar hymns. “Joy to the World” is, appropriately, one of the most joyous hymns of the Christmas season, but you’ll notice that this carol does not mention shepherds, angelic choruses, or wise men. (1) It emphasizes instead the reverent but ecstatic joy that Christ’s birth has brought to all humanity. For centuries, hearts had yearned for God to come closer, to come in person. And at last it happened – the Messiah proclaimed by the prophets had come. This carol exalts the salvation that began when God became God-with-us Emmanuel, as the Babe of Bethlehem who was destined to remove the curse of Adam’s sinfulness: "No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make his blessings known far as the curse it found." Our most joyous of hymns focuses not on the details of Jesus birth, but on the meaning of it – the fact the with his birth, salvation has come for the world. Things are set right, all the way back to Adam and Eve’s sinfulness. The world has waited a very, very long time for salvation in the Christ-child, and now the waiting is over, and joy abounds.

It is joy in the fulfillment of the promise of salvation that is the theme of our gospel lesson today. Now that the baby is born, where is this promised salvation? What do we see in the face of this baby? Is the salvation of our God in this little Christ child, in this little baby? As people of faith, the word salvation should not be unfamiliar to us. But we might have different understandings of what that word means. Has someone ever asked you, “Have you been saved?” And what do you think they mean by that question? Our own salvation – sometimes we mean where we will spend eternity, what happens to us at death – other times we mean something more like our salvation right now – our life being given meaning right now. And the actual biblical word for salvation has particular connotations too – it means a kind of health and wholeness – a person being totally well and complete. It’s the same word that gives us salve – a healing ointment. It’s an appropriate image perhaps. Jesus, who we’ve been waiting for, comes to us, and he is a salve, a healing ointment, one who makes us whole as we find our salvation in him. We call Jesus our Savior, and we affirm that through Jesus' guiltless, sinless death on the cross, we are saved from death for our guilty and sinful actions. We are familiar with this salvation theme.

Today, all the salvation talk is not about Jesus on the cross, and it's not about what happens to us at death. It's not about whether we have been 'saved' or not. The scriptures we read today talk about salvation in some surprising ways. There is no mention of death on the cross, no mention of an adult Jesus in ministry, no mention of heaven and hell. But there is salvation talk that is important for us to hear today, at this time, in this place, glimpses of God's salvation that are life-changing, for whole nations, and for whole lives.

In these glimpses of salvation, we see something really special. Sometimes all it takes IS one glimpse. One pastor shares his story of Christmas glimpses. He writes: “The Christmas our oldest son was ten, he had asked for a bicycle. Not just any bicycle but a Bandit BMX bicycle. He pointed it out to us one day in the store. That's all he talked about for three months before Christmas. Of course we got the bicycle. We put it on layaway that very day. I picked it up a week before Christmas. Still in the box, I wrapped it and brought it home. Then, in a very conspiratorial way, I asked him to help me carry it into the house. I told him it was a set of bookshelves which Mom had asked for. We slid it in behind the tree.

“When Christmas morning came, he kept wanting to give Mom her big present and I kept telling him to wait. Finally, all the presents but one were open. We told him to pull it out and then pointed out a card that was hanging on the tree. We told him to open the card first. He opened the card and it read, "Paul, open the big box." He started tearing the paper off and uncovered a hand hole for carrying the box. And whatever it was that he saw through that hole was just enough of a glimpse to give the whole thing away. That one little glimpse was all that he needed to know what was in the box. He leaped across the floor and hugged my neck and then went running to hug Mom's neck. All it took was one little glimpse." (2)

Our gospel lesson today is about those glimpses of salvation. Mary and Joseph bring a newborn Jesus to the temple for the traditional rite of purification. There they find two people who have been waiting for him. First, a righteous man, Simeon, who is overwhelmed to lay his eyes on this baby. "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples." Simeon takes just one look at Jesus - he catches just a glimpse of the baby - but in the face of Jesus he sees his salvation, and the salvation of all people. In Jesus' face, he sees a plan of salvation that extends to all people, not just some, not just the Jews, but the Gentiles also. In a little baby, a plan of salvation that touches the whole world. Then, Anna, a prophet. She’s been waiting, waiting in the temple, worshipping night and day. Her faithfulness is rewarded – she sees God’s redemption plan. She knows, just by seeing this baby, that in Jesus, there is one who will redeem Jerusalem, who will repair the broken relationship between God and God’s people. In just a glimpse, she sees salvation.

What do these glimpses mean for us? A new baby, a new hope, a new kind of salvation. For us today in the 21st century, standing on the brink of yet another new year, we need this new baby, this new hope, this new salvation, so much. We desperately need a glimpse of God's plan for us. We see a world full of war and violence. We see a nation struggling in the midst of financial concerns. We see global poverty and hunger on the rise, and closer to home we find people losing jobs, homes, security. We need a glimpse of salvation. Just a glimpse to give us hope. Who could think of a world more in need of some hope, some direction, some salvation than this world right now?

A new year awaits us in just a few days. We are at a time of new beginning. We have a new baby among us, a new hope, a new salvation. What does that mean for our lives? What hope have we this year? What will save us and bring us wholeness this year? Catch a glimpse, even just a glimpse of the salvation God offers, and you’ll find your hope, your path, your direction. Simeon sees a little baby Jesus, but catches a glimpse of savior who can touch people all over the world with his loving ways. Anna sees a newborn child, but catches a glimpse of God’s redemption plan for all of humanity. We see our own selves - broken, sinful, sad, in need of repair and resolutions - and we are weighed down by the work that must be done in our world and in our selves. Yet, can we catch the glimpse? Can we glimpse what we will look like with God working within us? There is, for us, a savior, our salvation, in this new baby in our midst. Try and catch just a glimpse.

Joy to the world – our savior has come! Catch a glimpse of the wonders of his love. Amen.

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joy_to_the_World

(2) Rev. Billy Strayhorn, http://www.epulpit.net/991226.htm

Question: Joys & Concerns, Pastoral Prayers

Question:

How do you gather joys & concerns in your congregation during worship? When do you share them?

Do you have a pastoral prayer every week? When? How?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A little late: My Christmas Eve Sermon

I don't normally post my sermons on my bl0g, since I have a separate website where I keep my archives. But I've been thinking about starting to post them here, and tag them to be easily searchable. So...here's my Christmas Eve sermon:


Sing We Now of Christmas: What Child is This?
(Luke 2:1-20, 12/24/08)

What Child is This? It’s my very favorite Christmas carol, and has been since I was a child. There’s something about the melody that’s so moving. The melody is much older than they lyrics, actually – it’s a traditional English melody called Greensleeves. But the text and the melody together make the complete package for me. The text was written in 1865 by William Dix. Dix was an insurance agent living and working in Glasgow, Scotland. When he was in his late twenties, he fell extremely ill and struggled with depression because he was bedridden for months. But he was a man of faith, and it is believed that he wrote many hymns during this time, including this, his most famous, What Child is This? Dix was writing in a time when public celebrations of Christmas by Christians were actually frowned upon. Actually, big, extravagant Christmas festivities for Christians are only a century or so old. Non-Christians, pagans, would celebrate Christmas decadently. But those who were faithful celebrated in a more subdued way, mostly associating Christmas with times of worship. When Dix penned this hymn, he was writing at a time when Christians celebrating Christmas was just starting to expand and adopt more secular practices.

And so, into such a cultural climate, and out of such a personal experience of illness and depression as Dix was experiencing, what more perfect question could he raise than this: What child is this? What child is this that we’re making such fuss about, singing about, celebrating, getting together with family for, exchanging gifts in the name of? Who is this baby? Dix answers in his text, originally written in a poem form, with different refrains for each verse, instead of repeating the first refrain as we usually do:

What child is this, who, laid to rest

On Mary's lap, is sleeping?

Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,

While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,

Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:

Haste, haste to bring him laud,

The Babe, the Son of Mary!

Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear; for sinners, here
The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through!
The Cross be borne for me for you.
Hail! Hail, the Word made flesh;
The Babe, the son of Mary.

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh,

Come peasant king to own Him,

The King of kings, salvation brings,

Let loving hearts enthrone Him.

Raise, raise the song on high,

The Virgin sings her lullaby:

Joy, joy, for Christ is born,

The Babe, the Son of Mary!

What child is this indeed? What do we think about this Jesus, the one who is at the center of all of our celebrations tonight? What is it about this child that draws us here? What child is this? I think maybe as we start asking ourselves this question, we can relate to the climate in which Dix wrote this carol, when we start to wonder if the way the world celebrates Christmas is only taking us farther away from figuring out what child this is we’re here for, rather than closer to understanding. Do we need this Christ-child? Do we need Christ to celebrate Christmas? It seems like a ridiculous questions for people of faith, but for many, the answer is actually no. A survey of United Methodists about why the come to church on Christmas Eve had the following results:

1. Family — this is what my family does (tradition) and I want to be with family (30%)

2. Music — I love the Christmas music and want to sing the familiar and favorite songs (22%)

3. Experience — I love the songs, the candles, the story, the feeling (16%)

4. Focus — Christmas has gotten so crazy; I like the clear focus on the reason for the season (12%)

5. Habit — we do this every year (11%)

6. Faith — this is the most special and important event in my faith; I wait all year for this (5%)

7. Other — friends asked me, I got an invitation in the mail, I just decided to, etc. (4%)

But perhaps even more of a concern to me is the follow up question: How important is attending worship on Christmas Eve to you? About half said it was pretty important, but the other half of respondents said, “it wouldn’t be so bad” to miss, or they “wouldn’t really miss it much at all,” or, “I wouldn’t miss it at all – I basically attend for other people.” (1) And this survey, let me remind you, wasn’t for the general public – it was a survey of United Methodists – those who are members of the denomination already! What child is this we’re talking about tonight? Who is this baby at the center of our worship here? Do we need Christ to celebrate Christmas? What makes Christmas Christmas?

I can’t help but thinking of the famous Dr. Seuss story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the story. The Grinch, a grump in every way, lives on the outskirts of Whoville, and resents everything about them. He sets out to steal away their joy by stealing Christmas. He’s sure this will ruin their constantly cheery outlook on everything. And so he sneaks into their homes on Christmas Eve and takes it all: Trees, decorations, presents, toys, food – everything. But Christmas comes anyway – and he finds that the Whos are still celebrating, still singing, still full of joy – even without all the stuff. And the Grinch finds his heart growing with love in spite of himself. As Dr. Seuss writes, “And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?”

That’s the question for us tonight. What if Christmas means more than we have made of it? What child is this Jesus? Is it Christmas without him? If we had to decide, could we do it all without the baby Jesus? Or would we rather choose to do it all without the presents and the decorations and the lights and the food? What part of Christmas is really Christmas for us? On the first Christmas, there were lights: the light of a star that was guiding Magi from the East to the Christ-child. There were presents that would come eventually when they arrived. The decorations? A shelter for animals, a trough for their food, serving as a place to lay a baby. Music indeed: music from the heavens. But that first Christmas was really about one thing only: The child Jesus. God becoming one of us just to be closer to us, so that we might better understand, more fully understand, how much God loves us. The child Jesus, to save us from ourselves and the mess we make of things when we don’t see how close God is.

Who is this Christ-child? Who is this Jesus? It’s a question that we’ve been trying to answer for more than two-thousand years. It’s a question that Jesus’ neighbors had as he began his ministry, a question that the scribes and Pharisees had, as they questioned his authority, a question that his disciples had, as they tried to follow him. But ultimately, Jesus turned the question back to us: “And who do you say that I am?” What child is this? Well, that’s the question that we spend our lives trying to answer as people of faith. What child is this? You tell me! Who is he to you?

What child is this, who, laid to rest

On Mary's lap, is sleeping?

Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,

While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,

Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:

Haste, haste to bring him laud,

The Babe, the Son of Mary!

Amen.

(1) From Dan Dick, GBOD, http://blogs.gbod.org/research/2008/12/18/the-meaning-of-christmas/

Monday, December 22, 2008

Rick Warren and Barack Obama's Inauguration

Like many in the blogosphere, I've been mulling over President-elect Obama's choice of Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration in January. I've read lots of posts about it, with a wide range of views, with the main point of contention being Warren's views on gay and lesbian relationships. Some don't disagree with Warren's views and have no problem with him speaking. Some don't agree with his positions, but don't mind him praying at the inauguration. Some don't like him, and don't want him participating. And so on and so forth.

My first reaction was to think that Obama's choice wasn't really a big deal. Where was all this controversy when Obama and McCain were hosted by Warren during the campaign season? Yes, I know that's not the inauguration, but I don't remember everyone being up in arms. Obama and McCain both clearly established some sort of relationship with Warren then, so it doesn't seem surprising for him to choose Warren now.

But more than that, I have a hard time saying that we can't allow someone to pray and lead in worship with whom we disagree theologically, even deeply. I have colleagues with whom I disagree sharply and frequently on most everything about faith matters. But we have core common ground that binds us together and would never allow me to reject them having a role in worship. They're the same principles that undergird my ability to participate in interfaith worship services. Obviously, in an interfaith service, we have folks with different, even conflicting beliefs. But we can worship together because of some common understandings, shared goals, etc. If Rick Warren will pray at Obama's inauguration, I can assume that at least to some extent, he shares a vision with President-elect Obama, even though they disagree on some issues. I think Obama has been fairly clear (in a politician-y sort of way) about his own views on rights for gays and lesbians. So I can be comfortable that it's his leadership that I'm concerned with, not Rick Warren's. Warren praying at inauguration doesn't make him my pastor.

And then on the other hand, as I've been reflecting, I wonder: I consider not allowing gay and lesbian persons to marry, or restrictions on adoption, or restrictions in the church on ordination, etc., to be oppressive human rights violations. Injustices. Inequalities that are wrong. What if Obama had chosen someone to pray at his inauguration who supported other violations of human rights? I find it harder to answer these questions. If John McCain had been elected, and chosen a pastor to pray who had racist views, would that be ok? Many people shy away from a comparison between racism and heterosexism, but I don't think the analogy is inaccurate. And so I'm just not sure, not sure what 'slot' to put my disagreement with Rick Warren in.

We have relationships all the time with people who hold views that we believe are really, truly, and deeply wrong, right? For example, I've been a vegetarian for 11 years now, and I really believe that (given my cultural context,) eating meat is wrong. Not just a bad choice, but wrong. I feel strongly about it. But what if I didn't interact with, or listen to, or learn from anyone who was a meat-eater? My social circle would suddenly grow much smaller (and I'd have to disown my one black-sheep meat-eating brother.)

So, I'm to the end of my post, with no real answers for myself. I don't know what to think about Rick Warren and the inauguration. But at this point, I believe it is going to happen, and so I guess that my hope will be that the backlash against his speaking will cause Warren to do some serious reflection and some careful listening.

What do you think?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Review: Stephenie Meyer, The Twilight series, the movie, and The Host

I'm not ashamed to admit that I recently read (and, ok, reread right away) the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, a set of four books about Bella, a young girl who moves into a new town and falls in love with Edward, who happens to be a vampire. Some of my CCYMers had been reading the books and buzzing about them, and I was looking for something light. I picked up the first book, Twilight, and was hooked. And then I found out that a lot of people my ages (especially mothers of teenage girls) had read the books too, and loved them. And then I made my brother read them, so that I could make him go to the movie with me. And even my brother really liked them, although I think he and I appreciated the books in different ways!

The books have been criticized by some as being anti-feminist, like this article which seems most ridiculous, where the author actually calls Edward a proto-rapist. (Was she reading a different book than I was?) I can understand where the critique is coming from to an extent, but mostly I think it is off target. Have none of these critics ever been in high-school? Bella certainly has low self-esteem. Edward is constantly telling her she doesn't see herself accurately. And despite the whole vampire thing, her struggle to see herself as worth being loved seems pretty realistic to me.

The movie . . . was terrible. There was hardly anything about the movie that I didn't think was pretty bad. The movie was made, I think, for a younger, denser audience than it should have been. Everything was spelled out in an over-the-top way, as if audiences could never pick up on subtle things. Edward doesn't just glare at Bella like he does in the book, he makes a face like he's smelled something really foul, and everyone in the audience laughed hysterically. In the book, it's not a funny scene. That's how you know the movie is so bad: everyone is laughing loudly at things that weren't meant to be funny. I liked the casting, it had a lot of potential with the people involved, but I for one am glad that a new director is coming on for the second film, New Moon. Hopefully he will give the film a darker, more serious edge.

Finally, I want to mention Meyer's one non-Twlight book, The Host. This is a sci-fi-esque book (sci-fi for people who don't like sci-fi, she says) that's for older reader. I listened to it on audio book, and thought it was great - in some ways, better than the Twlight books, without all the drama and energy of being caught up in the momentum of the Twilight books. The book is narrated by Wanderer, an alien who is inside a human host named Melanie. Don't let that description turn you off - the book is really excellent, detailed, with a rich plot, and beautiful storytelling. What I like about Meyer's plots in all her books is that she doesn't always go with the typical, expected outcome. All through The Host, I thought we were being walked into a certain scenario which I was dreading as overdone, but she went an entirely different direction. I'll definitely pick up anything else she comes out with.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Google's Friend Connect

I read Jeremy's post today about Google FriendConnect and am trying it out here. Note the new boxes in the sidebar. I have no idea if this will prove to be interesting or not, but I don't mind trying it for a while!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Children and Communion

Yesterday we celebrated communion for the First Sunday of Advent. Some parents of young children bring their children forward for a blessing, but don't feel their children are ready to take communion yet. One such father came forward with his little boy on Sunday, and I was ready to give him a blessing as he usually asks for.

But this Sunday, he said of his son, "I think he's ready."

And his son said, "Yes!" and excitedly took his bread and dipped it into the cup.

And that was definitely the high-point of communion for me - the little boy's joy and eagerness to be part of the holy meal he's seen happen so many times. Maybe he can't articulate perfect Eucharistic theology. (Who can?) But he gets something important: It's a meal of joy that you want to take part in.