Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Gospel Symbols of Christmas: Gift-Wrapped Presents

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her,“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.


I like presents. No…that’s an understatement…I love getting presents. In fact, I don’t just celebrate the day of my birthday; I celebrate the entire month of my birthday. And for me, the Christmas season is the epitome of a surprise birthday party. The anticipation of putting up the Christmas tree in my living room; shopping for presents for my family and loved ones; wrapping each gift and envisioning the look on its future owner’s face as it is opened. Now I admit, while I love giving presents…it really is so very exciting to get them. I mean, really, we all can be a little self-indulgent sometimes!


I will never forget Christmas morning as a child. I loved it. I would sneak out of bed on Christmas Eve night and sit in front of the Christmas tree, watching the lights twinkle and…count my presents under the tree.  But I didn’t just count my presents, I counted everyone’s presents. One particular Christmas Eve, I was around 10 years old; I counted all of my siblings’ gifts. I went as far as putting everyone’s presents in little piles on the living room floor…and counted every one of them. One particular Christmas Eve I discovered an upsetting surprise. All of my brothers and sisters each had eleven gifts…except for me. I only had ten.


Now even as I retell this story, I feel a bit guilty. Not because I counted them, but because of what I did that next morning. I certainly expected after everyone had opened their presents, my eleventh present was hidden somewhere, either in a closet, or out in the garage. And just at the right moment, when all of the gifts had been unwrapped…Dad would emerge from his bedroom with my amazing, exciting, exhilarating…and very expensive, eleventh gift. I was just sure of it. And I just knew that this eleventh gift was a bright, shiny new bicycle. Not one of those little tike bikes that was no taller than my waist, but an adult sized bike. This was my year. I was ready for that bike.


I waited with anticipation…unwrapping each of my gifts…still thinking of what lay beyond my pile of presents. And yet when all was said and done, the living room floor full of wrapping paper and toys and gifts scattered about…there was no surprise eleventh gift for me. I sat there in the middle of the floor, a bit stunned and anxious. But wait, something’s wrong I thought. I went over to the tree, surveyed underneath its tinsel covered branches, looked behind the couch, peered into the closet, searched through my own collection of gifts…perhaps I had missed it. I couldn’t hold my grief and disappointment any longer. “Mom” I exclaimed, “Is that all there is? I only have 10 gifts and everyone else has 11 gifts each!”  Why, I thought I was making a fair claim. Something was not right. I had been wronged. Surely things were not as they seemed. I demanded an explanation!


Well, our gospel text today suggests that there was someone else that really needed an explanation, probably more than me. Can you imagine what was going through Mary’s mind when she got this strange news from the angel Gabriel? Right from the start it seemed like an odd kind of salutation. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you! Do not be afraid for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” Found favor? Are you kidding me? Getting pregnant by someone other than the man she was engaged to was a death sentence for the likes of Mary. In ancient Palestine the amount of an engaged woman’s dowry was based on maintaining celibacy before the wedding. She could have been stoned to death as punishment for being unfaithful. But what is even more shocking than that? Even knowing all of these potential consequences, Mary said yes to the angel. She said yes to bearing the child that would reign over the house of Jacob; the one who would become the long awaited King of Israel. Mary did two important things in this text that is relevant for us today; she believed and she chose. She believed in the good news she was given by the angel in spite of the desperate situation it would put her in. And she chose to respond to what was being asked of her. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord;” Mary said. “Let it be with me according to your word.”


Belief and choice are the two most powerful gifts we have been given as creations in God’s image. In fact, some progressive theologians suggest that being made in the “imago dei,” or in “the image of God” means we have the same creative ability as God does. We are “co-creators” with God of our lives and our reality. This ancient formula for creation was that God thought it, then God said it, and it was became reality. Belief + Choice = Creation.


Now believing in something might seem easy to do, but you really don’t know what you believe until you choose to act in accordance with that belief. Most of us recognize the importance that belief makes in the successful accomplishment of any endeavor. Whether you believe you can or can’t, you will probably be right. Mary teaches us in this text that developing a self-image based on positive expectancy and positive belief cannot be left to chance. Too many of us have been conditioned to believe in fear, shame, guilt, and scarcity.


We’ve heard so many negative messages and learned from negative experiences that belief doesn’t make much of a difference anymore. We only believe what we can see. Most churches are dwindling in attendance because there is fear that the good old days of overflowing sanctuaries, generous giving and magnificent mission work are over for good. The messages have even been ingrained in us. “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” “Don’t try to be somebody you’re not,” “Don’t risk too much, you might lose,” or “This is too good to last.” We are conditioned in so many instances to look to our weaknesses than to our strengths—to look at problems rather than opportunities. But positive belief and positive expectancy can be developed by choice, and once developed; they will lead you to whatever you want.
(Excerpts from Terry McBride’s DVD course, “Everybody Wins” at www.terrymcbride.info)


Now hear me clearly about this. I am not talking about some new age concept like “The Secret” or a motivational seminar on the power of positive thinking. These popular self-improvement movements are secular versions of this Gospel truth. This is about acknowledging and using a gift that God has given to each of us; being created in God’s image. And that image is co-creator of our life and our world. Jesus tells us in Matthew 21:22 “And if you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” The season of Advent is about positive expectancy; expecting that we can have power over our lives and we can change our world. We are changed by first believing in the simple self-emptying gift that God gave to us, and then choosing to give ourselves wholly and completely back to God.
Belief + choice = creation.
During the past four weeks we’ve been unpacking the significance of the Gospel symbols of Christmas. From the hope of new life symbolized by the greenery hanging in our church and homes; to remembering our baptism through the new falling snow of Winter; followed by the twinkle bulbs and candles representing the light of awareness that shines brightly in our hearts and minds; and landing today at the base of our Christmas tree, cluttered with gifts and presents we’ve offered to each other and to this community. The Christmas tree comes from an old Germanic custom where bringing a tree into the house was like bringing God into the house. Offerings to God were adorned on the branches as ornaments. This custom evolved into putting wrapped gifts under the tree that are intended for those that we love. These are gifts that draw our attention to who and what is really important in our lives. Our connection to everyone around us is the gift we celebrate. And it is simply called ‘presence.’

I never did get an eleventh gift on that Christmas day 38 years ago. As you can imagine, my parents were not too happy with me. After all, they had given me more than they could really afford. And of course the uneven number of presents wasn’t intentional. What was intentional was their love for me even in the midst of my self-centeredness. I learned a valuable lesson then…that has hopefully stuck with me now.
It’s not what you get…
but what you give that blesses you.
What priceless gift do you possess that may seem worthless on the outside? What can you give as an expression of your love for the Christ-child? It may be a positive word or smile for that depressed or grouchy person in your life. I could be a warm embrace for the unlovable relative, or a kind word for the sarcastic or hateful comment thrown in your direction. It may simply be believing in the potential of a wayward child, grandchild or sibling, even when they can’t believe it themselves. It could even be a church believing they have the ability to do great things for their community in their hometown, even when the future is uncertain. Saying yes with these seemingly valueless gifts can miraculously transform any situation or relationship this Christmas.


There is one present that I got that Christmas morning that I still have today. It’s these old cowboy boots. Boot that I’ve worn since I was 10 years old. These are the boots that carried me through some rough times in junior high and high school. They took me into the Air Force and a transfer to Germany. They brought me back to the U.S., protected me as I wandered and worked in some dangerous places, led me to college, transported me while I traveled, gave me a kick in the pants when I needed to go to seminary, and eventually led me on my journey to you. Yeah, these boots were made for walkin’. And I would have missed out on their specialness had I stayed asleep and kept looking for that eleventh gift. What’s the surprise gift on this fourth Sunday of Advent? That a baby is coming—to love the world. I for one, hope to stay awake for that! Amen.
(Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Don’t Go to Sleep on Me” for November 27, 2005 – www.fernstone.org)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Gospel Symbols of Christmas: Twinkle Bulbs and Candlelights

John 1:6-8, 19-28
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

When it comes to watching Christmas movies and holiday themed TV shows this time of year, I admit I am a bit of a junkie. I have to watch the old Christmas stand-bys…”A Christmas Story,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and one of my favorites, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” But I like to surf through some of the cable channels for something different occasionally.

I was particularly intrigued by a show on HGTV this past week about extreme Christmas lights in America. One of the most extreme Christmas decorations are by the Faucher family in Delaware who have been merrily setting a neighborhood standard for 23 years - decking their halls with an astonishing one million Christmas lights. It's an impressive sight to say the least - and even more so when you consider what it must cost. Assuming that each one of the one million bulbs is an average five watt C7 bulb, the cost of keeping the lights on for one hour is roughly $686. If the Fauchers keep their display lit for four hours a night for 30 nights that means they are racking up an astonishing bill of $82,320. That is a lot of Christmas spirit.
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1338033/The-house-MILLION-Christmas-lights.html#ixzz1fgPcpANr

So in keeping with our sermon theme, I wondered what are the customs and traditions behind this decorating craze. You might be interested in knowing that the festival of lights is almost as old as the church herself. From ancient times light has symbolized faith and intelligence. It has been a symbol of Christian joy which was adopted to dispel the darkness associated with paganism. Torches, watch fires, beacon lights, lamps and candles often accompanied joyous occasions and festivities in antiquity. In fact, the Romans, during their celebration of a festival called Saturnalia in December, would fasten candles to trees, indicating the sun’s return to the earth. The Jewish people started celebrating the 8-day Feast of Lights, known as Hanukkah, commemorating their victory for religious freedom from the Greeks nearly two centuries before the dawn of Christ.

And early Christians adopted many of these rituals, reinterpreting them to symbolize Christ as the light of the world. As early as 492 C.E., the Pope established Candle-mas Day as the time for blessing candles in churches. In medieval Europe the custom arose of lighting a giant Christmas candle that would shed its glow on the festivities until Twelfth-night. Martin Luther is credited for first placing tapers on the Christmas tree.
(Herbert Wernecke, Christmas Customs Around the World. Louisville: Westminster Press)

In 1882, the first Christmas tree was lit by the use of electricity. Edward Johnson lit up a Christmas tree in New York City with eighty small electric light bulbs. It didn’t take long for Johnson to create the first string of electric Christmas lights that were then mass produced around 1890. By 1900, department stores started using the new Christmas lights for their Christmas displays.
http://inventors.about.com/od/cstartinventions/a/Xmas_Lights.htm

I was very excited to put up my Christmas decorations and twinkle lights this year. But there’s nothing worse than this happening…nothing more frustrating than a half lit string of twinkle lights. I even tested each and every unlit bulb and still could not get them to work. Until, I found a tiny split in one of the wires. Now I’m not an electrician, but fixing this seemed pretty easy. So I stripped both ends of the plastic casing, reconnected the tiny copper wires, and wrapped it tightly with black electrical tape. And…nothing. Seems my elementary electrical skills were not advanced enough to make this work.

I am definitely not an electrician.

And sometimes it is helpful to remember who you are not.


That is probably the most important message of this morning's gospel. It deals with the question of John’s identity. Just who was John the Baptist? Where did he come from? What was his mission? Why did God send him? It was a big question by the time the author of our gospel wrote these words for the church. Historically, the movement that John the Baptist started, independent of Jesus’ ministry, did not end with his death. The writer of John’s gospel is very aware of the admiration of the Baptizer’s crusade. Some of his followers were still carrying on his cause long after the Jesus' movement got started. These followers were called the Essenes, and they were growing alongside the Christian community, perhaps even competing for converts. In fact, there is still a small sect in Iraq called the Mandeans who trace their history and teachings all the way back to John the Baptist and his vision.

Perhaps this is why we understand the emphasis in our gospel text for making clear who John was not. The gospel writer even interrupts himself when he is talking about the light that has come into the world. "I am not talking about John," he says. The author of the gospel even records John saying the same thing, with double emphasis. "I am not the Messiah," John the Baptist states. Certainly, there is no evidence to suggest that John thought of himself as the Messiah, even though he did believe the Messiah's arrival was imminent. But I wonder what it must have been like for him. Was it hard for him to realize who he was not?

I imagine there was a lot of pressure for him to imposter the long-awaited Messiah. But it seems he resisted the pressure to be something he was not, as powerful as that temptation might have been. In so doing, he was also able to accept who he was, what he had been called to be; the Messiah's advance man. He was the forerunner of the Anointed One. "I am the one who has come to make his way straight," John said, "a voice crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.'"

Pastors sometimes face such pressure from their churches. Whenever a new minister comes to town, there can be a temptation to make them into something they are not. All those glowing recommendations. Those fervent expectations. "Now, things will really get going!" people begin to say. "This time we've got a winner!" "This one is just what our church needs!" It is all very well-intentioned. Very understandable. There’s usually a budding romance with a new minister; a honeymoon period at the beginning of a new pastorate. But, I'm telling you, this expectation is a setup for everything that can and often does go wrong.


Mass Appeal (1984)
Movie Poster
There is that wonderful scene in the movie “Mass Appeal,” for instance, where Jack Lemmon plays an older, successful priest who has bent over backwards in order to be everything his new, affluent congregation expects him to be. When a young pastoral apprentice comes to the parish, it isn’t long before he gets into trouble just for being himself. The older priest is conscience-stricken when he realizes that his entire ministry has been a sham in order to cover up his deep fear of simply being the person he really is. When he finally confesses this to his congregation while celebrating Mass, he says apologetically and somewhat thoughtfully, "Perhaps, now, you and I can really learn what it means to love one another."

But this is a dilemma for a lot of us, not just church pastors. Most teenager are always trying to be the coolest kid at school, or the smartest, or sexiest, or most athletic because they think it is the only way to find acceptance. The young man trying to be what his parents want him to be. The young wife trying to be what her husband expects her to be. The middle-aged person holding onto old regrets about the opportunities that passed them by. The senior adult who is unable to embrace the person that they have become; limited by the role their children or grandchildren need them to be.

Our gospel text teaches us an important lesson for advent. It encourages us to be willing to live within the limits of who we are, but also be the very best that we are, no more and no less. During this Christmas season expectations may be very high to deliver that perfect present, or cook that perfect dinner, or be that perfect person at family gatherings. Like these twinkle lights that I tried to hang on my tree, we might feel “half lit” from all the pressure and expectations to be perfect. We might feel the need to make other people’s lives bright and shining, when we ourselves feel dimmed and dull.

What mattered to John the Baptist, was preparing the way for God's anointed one. Preparing the way, but not trying to compete with it. Why? Because being comfortable with WHO you are - no matter WHERE you are on your journey - is all that God asks. And what does God promise? That God will light the way for you. And that light will be the welcome for others to join you along the journey. The author of John's Gospel makes the same affirmation: "The true light, which enlightens everyone, is coming into the world." Jesus the Christ is the light who brings enlightenment; indeed, he is "the light of the world." This is the truth in his birth stories, and it is true of your inherent nature as God’s child. How might you share your light today? 

Might you kindle a smile in someone who seems down?  Can you share what you have with someone who could really use it?  Will you offer a kindness to a stranger? Perhaps you will call a friend and just say, “You are important to me.” When the light of Christ’s awareness is illuminated in you, no one will be able to turn off the twinkle of God’s love shining through you…even when you feel “half-lit” at times. So…light up the world, you little Christ’s. It won’t cost you a cent! Amen!
(Excepts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon, “ALL THAT GOD ASKS” for December 15, 2002 - www.fernstone.org)  

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Gospel Symbols of Christmas: Let it SNOW!

Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ”John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”


A nice married couple, we’ll call Bruce and Carol Davidson, were sitting down to their usual morning cup of coffee, listening to the weather report coming over the radio. "There will be 2 to 4 inches of snow today, and a snow emergency has been declared," the weather report said. "You must park your cars on the odd numbered side of the streets." Bruce says "Jeez, okay," and gets up from his warm coffee, bundles up and moves the car. The next day they're sitting down with their morning cups of coffee and the weather forecast declares "There will be 4 to 6 inches of snow today, and a snow emergency has been declared. Now you must park your cars on the even numbered side of the streets. Again, Bruce says "Jeez, okay," and gets up from his coffee. Two days later, again they're sitting down with their cups of coffee and the weather forecast says, "There will be 6 to 9 inches of snow today, and a snow emergency has been declared. You must park your cars on the -" Just then the power goes out and Bruce doesn't get the rest of the instructions. He turns to Carol and says "Jeez, what am I going to do now?" Carol replies "Aw, Bruce, why don't you just leave the car in the garage today?"


So, as you can guess, our worship theme this morning is all about Snow. Now unless you are under the age of 16, or don’t have your driver’s license, Snow is hazardous to your health this time of year. I really don’t like the snow. Oh, yeah, it’s all nice and fluffy looking as it first begins to fall to the ground. It does bring some warm images of Christmases past to mind…and it wouldn’t really be much of a holiday season without at least one or two inches of the stuff lying around. But if you are really honest with yourself, doesn’t all the frozen wet stuff just bother you after the first couple days following the first snowfall…especially when it begins to turn black with soot and dirt from the passing cars. Let’s face it; does snow really have a purpose at all?


Well, I went to the internet and posed that exact question. What came up from my search was a bit astonishing! Scientifically, here were the answers: Snow is a type of precipitation in the form of crystalline water ice, consisting of a multitude of snowflakes that fall from clouds. We know that precipitation is a major component of the hydrologic cycle, and is responsible for depositing most of the fresh water on the planet. Now apart from the obvious role of precipitation in our ecosystem, snow serves as an insulating blanket, lessening to some extent the extremes of temperature fluctuation to which the soil is subjected. But it also brings about a rapid cooling of the overlying atmosphere, which gives rise to polar air masses that drive the ocean currents like a global conveyor belt. In short, snow plays a dominant part in the climate of many of the Earth’s regions.


Besides the ecological benefits of snow, we can understand it to also have spiritual effects. It can be viewed as one of God's instruments for assisting us in the maintenance of our spiritual growth. In dreams, liquid water represents our conscious life experiences – whereas snow is made of frozen water particles. It symbolizes stagnancy, or unchanging life experiences. When there is no change in life, the same experiences are repeated. Have you ever had the same experience over and over, and just couldn’t understand why the same scenario seemed to be constantly played out? It might be the same kind of relationship within your family, or with your supervisor at a job. It could be with your kids’ teachers at school, or with a waiter at a restaurant. Whatever the situation, having the same kind of life experience is not just a coincidence, but is an opportunity for reflection and spiritual growth.


Let’s unpack that a little bit more. For instance, in our text today we have a really interesting character that opens Mark’s gospel. John the Baptist is preparing people for Christ’s coming by calling them to repentance and baptism. He was warning them about what, and who was to come. And what was coming was no picnic for the Jews under Roman occupation. He was a preacher who had no qualms telling people the truth. He showed up wearing clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist and chomping grasshoppers dipped in wild honey. Everybody knew what that meant. In the popular Judaism of Jesus' day, there was this expectation that on the day God started to make things right for the poor and dispossessed - Elijah would reappear. Of all the prophets of Israel, no champion of the oppressed had been more popular than Elijah, a man, they said, who ate false prophets and evil kings for dinner.

It would have been something like Abe Lincoln showing up during the march on Selma, Alabama in the 1960s; or Gandhi walking in front of tanks in Beijing, China during the massacres on Tiananmen Square in 1989; or Martin Luther King addressing congress about the rights of immigrants, same-sex couples, and unemployed Americans suffering in this decade of economic imbalances. John the Baptist wasn't just a popular prophet. He represented the very spirit of Israel at its most just and courageous.


"Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near" he warned them, reminding his listeners of that time in the future when everything that stood in opposition to goodness and justice would be swept away once and for all. He was announcing that the reign of God was drawing near and that it would be "game over" for all who worshipped loveless power. "Repent," John pounded from his wilderness pulpit. But he didn't mean simply feeling sorry for cheating on your income taxes, but demanded a reorientation of your entire life. He called everyone to be baptized into a new orientation of life experience, to defrost the old way of thinking and thaw out frozen attitudes of self absorption and indulgence.


It seems that this holiday season has brought out the worst in some people. On the day after Thanksgiving this past year, Black Friday they call it, the lines out front of retail stores began forming the night before. On TV we saw stampedes recorded on security cameras in Wal*Marts across the nation as people rushed to buy their $198 42 inch LCD televisions. A woman in Los Angeles even pepper-sprayed a crowd of folks that was in her way, injuring over 30 other shoppers.


Our incessant need for more and blinding greed keeps our hearts and minds “snowed in” from responding to our true mission as God’s children. That mission is to be a people of faith that consider the needs of others before ourselves. And like John the Baptist we are not simply preaching "self-help,” but are reorienting people to the necessity of change in response to the reality of a new set of circumstances. A new world is breaking in, one which would not tolerate injustice, oppression, deceit, greed and fear. It is time to re-define one's life, to re-align one's ethical stance in keeping with such a new order. "The kingdom of heaven is drawing near."


And that is why John speaks so sternly, so sarcastically to the religious conservatives and liberals who showed up to hear him preach; for that is who the Pharisees and Sadducees represented. It wasn't enough to trust the old patterns of thinking, the frozen-in-stone rules, the predictable rituals - no matter how honored or revered. It didn't matter whether you were Democrat or Republican, fundamentalist or liberal, pedigreed or newcomer. It was deeds that counted not talk; action not reputation. And why was it so important for John that people get their act together in a hurry? Well, here, of course, was the main point of his message. Because John believed that what he was doing was just a preview of coming attractions.


The Bible is very clear about this. It says that a day will come when God will bring an end to things as we have known it, which means an end to climbing over each other for a bigger piece of the cake, an end to exercising power over others simply because you can, an end to the importance of being famous, an end to the obscenity of fabulous wealth living alongside abject poverty - an end to all of that. And the one who will end it will be Christ, of all people. The one who is coming to judge us most fully is the one who loves us the most fully. He will burn away all this chaff that makes us less than human and the world far less human than it is - precisely because he loves us. That is what we are getting ready for - those of us who call ourselves Christ's people and who long for the birth of such a love!


And where will this Christ be born? You guessed it…in the stable of our hearts. Christ comes to us bathed in a new consciousness. He melts the frozen thoughts of our conditioned life experiences with the warm light of awareness. Snow is the water of our baptism, thawed out from frozen attitudes and frigid fears of change. It may seem like a hazard at first, but it can renew our understanding of communion with each other – and that’s what the Christ mass is all about, right? Amen!

(Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “A Preview of Coming Attractions” for December 4, 2005www.fernstone.org)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Gospel Symbols of Christmas: Hanging of the Greens

Mark 13:24-37

"But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see "the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

Anyone get to clean out their refrigerators this past week? Did you pardon any turkeys in your life? (You will need to read last week's post to get this in context.) I hope you continue this tradition next year, and remember to prepare your hearts for Thanks-forgiving every year.

And speaking of traditions, did any of you participate in “Schwarzer Freitag” the day after Thanksgiving? Those of you with a German heritage will nonetheless know what I am talking about…Black Friday? Anyone know why we call it that? Yes, most stores make enough sales after this day of the year that anything they sell afterwards is pure profit.


The fact is, like Black Friday in the secular world, we have lots of traditions or customs that we follow in the Christian church during this time of year. There are many traditions that most young people don’t really understand, and even some of us older folks have probably forgotten their original meanings. Over the next four weeks we will be exploring these customs during our Advent sermon series called, “The Gospel Symbols of Christmas.”

Well, we know that the Christmas season has been around for a long, long time. But do you know just how long? It is generally known by most folks that Christmas began as Christes Masse, a beloved religious festival originating from the angels’ song in Bethlehem, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” This is really the Good News of the Gospel in simplest terms. But Christes Mass literally means the Eucharist of Christ, or Christ’s Communion with Humankind. It’s the season to remember why God came to earth enfleshed in human form, to commune with us, God’s children.

 
Emperor Constantine
But what is less known is the face that only as late as 350 C.E. was December 25th set for the observance of the birthday of Jesus the Christ. The date was set by Julius I, Bishop of Rome, after the Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity the empire's favored religion in 336 C.E. While the reasons for choosing this specific date are wildly different, it is assumed that because this time of year coincided with many pagan festivals, the church needed to offer people a Christian alternative to the pagan festivities. Eventually many of their symbols and actions were reinterpreted in ways acceptable to Christian faith and practice. Although the Christmas season has been developing for over 1600 years, it is still changing and continues to grow as our customs are refined and new traditions begin. http://www.gotquestions.org/December-25.html


Some of our modern traditions still originate in pagan customs and have little to do with the biblical account of Christ’s birth. This morning I want to give you some history behind our “Hanging of the Greens” around the sanctuary and our homes. The hanging of greens, such as Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe is a British winter tradition with origins far before the Christian era. Greenery was used to lift people's spirits during the long winter and remind them that spring was not far away.


There are more than 150 varieties of holly and ivy, and it grows in practically all the countries of the world. It was used for centuries for decorative purposes, especially in winter festivals because it bore fruit in the winter. It came to be a symbol of immortality. It was connected to Christmas, beginning in Denmark, as a symbol of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus, the red berries representing the blood. The Danes call it, Christ-thorn. In ancient yuletide songs the holly was spoken of as the male and the ivy as the female. Whichever gender was the one who first brought it into the house for the season would indicate which sex would rule the house that year. Anyone for a trip to the greenhouse after church!
Another similar seasonal decoration is the Mistletoe. Its name is derived from the Norse word, misteltan, meaning “different twig.” In ancient Britain it was the sacred plant of the Druids, used in elaborate ceremonies at the winter solstice. Because of its overt pagan associations it is seldom used in church decorations, but is commonly found in homes. As it hangs in the doorway anyone may claim a kiss from the person who stands beneath it. After the kiss they then remove one of the berries to give to the recipient. When all of the berries are taken, no more kisses are available. (Herbert Wernecke, Christmas Customs Around the World. Louisville: Westminster Press)


How about the wreaths that we hang on our doors and windows, or the greenery we string along our banisters and archways? Evergreens, which flourish when all else is brown and dead, are obvious symbols of enduring life. Our primitive fore parents brought in green branches at the festival of the Winter Solstice, which occurs every year on December 21st. They used them in magical rites to ensure the return of vegetation in the spring. Holly, ivy and mistletoe were strong life-symbols because they could bear fruit even in the winter. And wreaths represented the Teutonic fire wheel, a symbol of the sun god.

But not all of our holiday greens originate from our European ancestors. For instance; the Poinsettia as a symbol of Christmas comes from an old Mexican legend. A poor little girl was heartbroken because she had nothing of beauty or value to offer the Christ child, so she plucked some weeds from the side of the road and, as her only possession in the world, laid them at the feet of the statue of the Virgin Mary. The legend says that the weeds were miraculously transformed into the scarlet brilliance of the poinsettia flower that we know today. In fact, in present day Mexico people still refer to it as the flower of the Holy Night.

And, like these many symbols of our greens that mean more than they seem, we have an unusual gospel text for the first Sunday of Advent. Just what do these apocalyptic words mean to the audience that the gospel writer was addressing? This is what we do know. Mark’s gospel was written during a turbulent political era in Judea. Judea was the area of ancient Israel that was occupied and governed by the Roman Empire. The time frame was about year 70 of the Common Era, or roughly 40 years after the death of Christ. The situation had become gravely dangerous. Enemies and spies were everywhere. It was not safe to be a known follow of Jesus. And people spoke in coded language for their own safety, especially members of that tiny, persecuted community called the church.

The author of the gospel of Mark writes about the time after the suffering of the followers of Jesus, “Then they will see ‘the Son of man coming in clouds’ with great power and Glory.” As I read this I have to ask myself, is this a reference to a literal ‘end of the world’ scenario? Growing up I was taught that this passage was evidence that Jesus was predicting the end of the world with very specific signs…and that only those who endure to the end would be saved. But what did these words mean to the people that Mark was writing to? We do know that Mark was indeed writing about the end of an era when Jesus died on the cross. That was the beginning of the end for Mark and that tiny Christian community. But Mark believed that the powers that ruled their world were toppled in the very moment that Jesus died on the cross. When Jesus stood up to the powers, it was the dawn of a new day, the beginning of the renewal of everything in the whole universe. . . . stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken, the scripture says. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Blossoming Fig Tree
And then Mark recounts Jesus’ story about a fig tree that is about to blossom signaling the end of one season and the beginning of another. Mark confirms that the old order of domination is about to end and a new day is about to blossom. It is happening now.  . Jesus is near, at the very gates . . . Mark tells us. It is the moment of truth for the Christian community—a chance for things to begin. Pay attention! And then, just to make sure we get the point, another story hot on the heels of this one - about a man who leaves on a journey, leaving his servants in charge, telling them to be ready for his return, for they do not know when that will take place. It could be . . . in the evening.

“Ah,” members of Mark’s community would have remembered. “That’s when Jesus met with his friends in the upper room, wasn’t it? . . . or at midnight when Jesus was arrested . . . or at the cockcrow when Peter denied Jesus . . . or at dawn when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus!” You see? Coded language that Christian people would have understood during those dangerous times to refer to the fact that they were living in a time of momentous importance.

“Beware, keep alert,” Mark writes, “for you do not know when the master of the house will come . . . or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. What I say to you I say to all. Keep awake.” It’s the same word Jesus used in the garden of Gethsemane when he begged Peter and James and John to stay awake with him. Stay awake! Stay alert! Stay conscious! Don’t go to sleep on me! This is the hour, Mark is saying in coded language.

I’ve often wondered why there is no story about the birth of Christ in the gospel of Mark. When it comes to Christmas, Mark is not concerned about a stable, a star, shepherds or Wiseman. For him, more cosmic things are happening. This passage is not a vision of the end of the world but words of encouragement to a dispirited group of Christians who were in danger of giving up the cause. The cosmic images and parables are ‘coded’ language, intended to remind members of the Christian community of the importance of remaining faithful in these dark days of world history, a time not unlike that time for Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.

Our Christmas symbols represent a similar coded language that is intended to remind us of exactly what we are waiting for during advent. Although some of these customs originated as pagan rituals, and were even at one time forbidden by the early church, we understand that back them, like now they represented the ever-living, eternal God whose constant and abiding love is always ours…and that God is always present with us. Like the Holly does, what fruit will you bear when the environment around you seems cold and lifeless? Like the garland wrapped around our sanctuary, how will you express the enduring life of God within you when all else seems dead and forgotten? That is our gospel duty, not just through tough times like we are experiencing today, but in all the challenges and conflicts we experience in this human form.

Advent means coming. The Advent wreath symbolizes our journey of waiting for the Messiah, the anointed one who came to liberate us from our own personal bondage. The light is coming to wake us up from our slumber and lead us to a new way of being.

Are you awake to these dark days of so many in our world? Do you read about the suffering of the poor, but have no desire to ease their pain? Have you fallen asleep spiritually? Do you snooze through the anticipation and excitement of Christmas? Have you dozed off from following the gospel—no longer alert to the realm of God around you? Stay awake! Stay alert! Stay conscious! Don’t go to sleep during this season of advent! Get ready for the coming of our Messiah who makes all things alive and green even when our world seems brown and lifeless.

So go home this afternoon, and…


 (Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Don’t Go to Sleep on Me” for November 27, 2005 – www.fernstone.org)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cleaning Out the Fridge

Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. ’Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? ’And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. ’Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. ’Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you? ’Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. ’And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

There are a few traditions we’ve started in my house for Thanksgiving over the past few years since moving into our new home. I’m not the cook in the family, so instead of planning menus or going shopping for the dinner ingredients I get to design the table decorations and create a personal gift for each individual plate setting. In the past I’ve gotten some great ideas from Martha Stewart like making construction paper cutout Turkeys on which family members could record what they are thankful for. Sometimes I just shop for little Thanksgiving or harvest related chachkis at the dollar store or Flower Factory. This year I am filling these cute little tins with candy. I know, I know…I’m copping out this year. But these are not the traditions I want to talk about this morning. No, the tradition I’ve been stuck with every year is…vacuuming and dusting the house and…cleaning out the refrigerator.

 
Now some of you might be thinking, that’s not a tradition…that’s just a chore. But according to Wikipedia, a tradition is a ritual, belief or object passed down within a society, still maintained in the present, with origins in the past. Common examples include holidays or impractical but socially meaningful clothes (like lawyer wigs or Kentucky Derby hats), but the idea has also been applied to social norms such as greetings. The word "tradition" itself derives from the Latin tradere literally meaning to transmit, to hand over, to give for safekeeping—and new traditions continue to appear today. For me, cleaning out the fridge before Thanksgiving is quite a ritual.

Those of you who get to host Thanksgiving dinner for the extended family know good and well that cleaning house from top to bottom is a very important part of the holiday preparations. Amen? The fact is, since I clean-up all the dirty dishes after the cooking and eating is over, I also get to put away leftovers. And there is never, never enough space in the refrigerator to store them all. So, I’ve learned to clean out the fridge in advance in order to make room for the leftover turkey, stuffing, corn casserole, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, marsh mellowed yams and delicious gravy. And in order to make sure I have enough room for all the leftovers, any containers that are expired, in plastic or nearly empty are taken out of the fridge and sorted to be cleaned and recycled or thrown away.


In many ways, Matthew’s depiction of the last judgment in the Gospel reading today is like this process of judgment and separation. Its purpose is not to condemn or scare but to provide a glimpse at what habits and ways of life are inconsistent with the realm of God. This particular parable of the sheep and goats is a narrative tale about the last judgment and criteria that the Son of Man will use in this sorting. The criterion is simple; has the person shown mercy to the oppressed? This parable is the answer to the questions asked in earlier parables in Matthew about how to be ready for the coming of God’s kingdom; by showing mercy and caring for the least. Our contemporary metaphor of this sorting is cleaning out the refrigerator, throwing out the food that is rotten or expired, and making room for the good food that will nurture our bodies, and souls.
(2002 Lumicon Digital Productions exegesis for the Gospel text - www.lumicon.org)


So why do poor old goats always get the bad rap? I mean, have you ever had goats milk or goat cheese? It is delicious…and is considered a delicacy in many places since it’s more difficult and expensive to obtain. But this metaphor would speak loudly to the agricultural society of the ancient Near East. Mixed herds of sheep and goats are typical in Palestine. These herds have to be sorted in the evening because goats need to be kept warm at night. Sheep are placed on the right because they were more valuable than goats. They were better meat and their wool could be sold for cash. The audience that Matthew is writing too would also remember the texts in the Torah, specifically Leviticus 16:21-22. It says that Aaron laid his hands upon a goat and symbolically placed all of the sins of Israel upon the head of the goat and sent it off into the wilderness. The term Scapegoat comes from this action; the idea of letting someone else take the blame. In these rituals, the goat was sent out into a field symbolizing that the Lord would remember their sins no more. In Christian contexts, the sheep are depicted as the meek and gentle followers of Christ (the Lamb of God). While goats are symbolized as unruly and outcasts, and have even been widely used as the basis of portraits of the devil. http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Why_in_the_Bible_are_goats_considered_bad

And even today we often use the reputation of goats in negative terms. For instance, "Look at the old goat" refers to an old fool or curmudgeon. "You get my goat!" applies to a person who irritates another. Anyway you look at it; goats tend to be seen in a negative way. Perhaps it is because of the natural tendencies that a goat displays. Whereas sheep are gentle, quiet and easily led, goats are pushy, self-sufficient, and headstrong. Most goats are naturally horned, but many sheep breeds are naturally hornless. Those goat horns can be used to bring harm to another. Alas, goats are naturally quarrelsome and have short tempers. They rear and butt in order to establish dominance. Rather than being a passive animal like the sheep, they have more aggressive tendencies.

How do these goat characteristics relate spiritually to the shepherd or leader? If a "goat" is part of a fold, you may see some of these characteristics displayed. Goats are often pushy and can cause undercurrents and dissension. Turmoil and agitation are part of their nature. I believe this is because the goat has a dominating and controlling temperament, rather than a passive and submissive one.


Goats tend to be more self-sufficient than sheep, choosing to browse rather than graze in the pasture. They don't enjoy the green pastures in the same way as the sheep. They are not always satisfied with what the shepherd (leader) gives them. They will nibble on the Word of God, a little here and a little there, yet they love to be seen in the high places. The goats walk with their tails held high, spiritually indicating pride, and they emit an offensive odor. There is something distinguishing about the goat, and that is the odor, or "air" about them. http://www.watchmanbiblestudy.com/Documents/SymbologyofSheepGoats.htm

So, in light of this evidence I guess we can understand why goats are given such a bad rap. And if we will scrutinize our bad behaviors in light of this goat metaphor, then we also see the good news of the gospel in this text. We can be assured that if we engage in an exercise of “spiritual sorting” we might understand the value of separating our sheep and goat tendencies. We might value the opportunity to inspect our refrigerators of the heart and begin throwing out our rotten behaviors, the stuff that smells with the odor of our pride and self-righteousness, our stinky sense of superiority, our leftovers of unforgiveness.


As we prepare ourselves for this time of thanksgiving I really believe that in order to truly be thankful, we must first practice forgiveness. Forgiveness is the path to healing; not just the healing of our hurt and pain, but a healing of our lack of compassion for one another. And let’s face it; we all have those hardened places in our heart where we have neglected or ignored this call to forgive; hardened, frozen, leftover emotions of hurt, or disgust, or resentment, or even hate. Jesus said “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” It’s not just about welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, or visiting the prisoner. It can simply be about closing yourself off from whomever Jesus calls you to love. And sometimes family can be the hardest of all.

About 15 years ago my brother and I became estranged for many years due to disagreements over religious beliefs, and judgments we made about each other. While the reasons for those differences are not so important now, the pain and resentment I held onto for many years tore at my heart over time. I decided to write a letter of forgiveness to my brother a few years after our separation so that I could be healed from our estrangement. I didn’t expect any changes to happen in either of our beliefs or perceptions about each other, and I never intended to even mail the letter to him. But I needed to clean the rotten leftovers of anger and hatred from my heart and mind. I had too. They were poisoning me.


It didn’t take long for God to work in me, and in him. In just a short time after I wrote that letter my brother called me, invited me to lunch, and apologized for the things he said that had hurt me so. I asked for forgiveness for the resentment I had held in my heart against him, and together we repaired our relationship while God healed our hearts. It was the most liberating experience of my life, and I understood from that moment on how the power of forgiveness is central to the story of Jesus and the Good News of God’s love for all humankind.


You see, God created the world out of an abundance of love. Like a bubbling fountain, God is love and overflows with love. In sending Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God repeatedly and generously pours love out upon all people, showing us God’s own self as well as who we are. Created in this image of this freely giving God, we are empowered to also freely give. And when we embody that creativity, we can’t help but give thanks for all that God does. Because love is for giving. And for that I am truly thankful. But you won’t have much room for what God has to give if the old fridge needs cleaning out. (Lindsay Armstrong’s thoughts on the Gospel text in “Feasting on the Word,” Year A, Volume 4 for Proper 29, p. 335.) 


I invite you to clean out your refrigerators this week. In fact, I challenge you to make the week prior to Thanksgiving a new tradition of cleaning out the old behaviors, or feelings, or resentments that inhibit you being filled with thanksgiving. It’s kind of like Lent, but before Advent instead of Easter. Let’s call it “AdLent.” In your bulletin is a formula for cleaning out the refrigerator of your heart. It’s a “Thanks-forgiving” exercise; to prepare you for healing through forgiveness. And if you have the courage to write that letter of forgiveness, no matter how long the pain or hurt has been rotting inside of you, I guarantee your life will never be the same. Who knows, you might even pardon that turkey in the family! Amen!


Thanks-forgiving Exercise: preparing for healing through forgiveness
Begin by relaxing, center yourself, and take a look at your life, remembering someone (living or dead) whom you have never been able to forgive for some hurt you experienced in relationship to them. Write a letter to the person you want to forgive through these steps. (Note: this letter is for your personal process and not a letter to send to the person.)
 
1)     Describe the event – how it hurt you, what was painful, what your feelings were, and how it is still affecting you. (i.e., it hurts me when…, I feel sad about…, I feel angry that…, I resent…, I was afraid that…, I’m still feeling…, I feel held back in my life now because…)
2)     Identify the part you played – did you participate in the situation in any way? Are there any learnings or insights that you have from the experience? (i.e., I realize my part in this was…, I am sorry that…, I didn’t mean to…)
3)     Say what you really wanted – write about what you would have like to experience and how that affects your life and desires now. (i.e., What I really wanted is…, I deserved to…, I would have liked…)
4)     Letting it go – Write down your release from this hurt and offer your forgiveness.
(i.e., I understand now that…, I forgive you for…, I am releasing this now…)
5)     I am grateful now – acknowledge the contribution this experience gave to your life, through what you understand now, or what you have learned. (i.e., I appreciate that…, I am grateful for…, What I gained from this experience is…)
6)     Give Thanks – to complete you letter, give thanks for the person and the experience in your life. (i.e., in appreciation…, with love…, sending you many blessings…,) and sign your name.
(Exercise from the “Healing through Forgiveness” exercise from the Center for Spiritual Living Foundations Student Workbook.)