Sunday, April 16, 2017

Fear & Great Joy

Year A
Matthew 28:1-10

The beginning of this Easter scene rings true to me.  The first sentence is so familiar with the women going to visit the grave of their executed rabbi.  It is what we would expect after the pain and loss of Good Friday, these two women going to pay their respects, walking to the sealed off tomb.  Though drenched in grief, the scene is also safe and predictable.  Death is contained inside the tomb, it was horrible what happened, but it’s all cleaned up now and tucked away.  Now the woman simply need to go through the proper grieving motions and lay their flowers outside near the stone that shields them from death and the obscene injustice they just experienced.  

This scene rings true for me because I know the safe, somewhat easy pull to hole up inside a self-made tomb.  My daughter is now fully healthy have three months of prolonged, though not serious, illness. Through our frustration and fear I jumped into control mode -- there were schedules, spreadsheets, medicine alerts on my phone and pages of instructions written to anyone who would came to care for the suffering patient.  Even though it was miserable, it was also safe and predictable, holing up in the house and focusing on nothing else but getting better, attempting to control what was never within my control anyways.  Sometimes, our tombs are just easier.

Yet, here we are on Easter morning! We know the death-filled tomb is not where the story stops.  And just when this scene feels all predictable and gloomy...everything changes.  Now you need to know something about the gospel according to Matthew.  If Matthew were alive today he would be writing scripts for major action movies -- because in his storytelling style, the dialogue is pretty weak, but it doesn’t matter because the action sequences are what we come for anyways.  So of course, in this resurrection story the quiet graveside scene literally bursts open with an earthquake! The whole earth is trembling at the prospect of resurrection, an angel appears right there on the tomb and the guards pass out from fear and shock. And then, this other worldly, angelic being rolls the giant boulder aside and says to the women, “Take a look, it’s empty, he is not here.”

Death has not won, predictability be gone, containment and confinement are not the ways of God -- everything is broken open, the earth is trembling, the women stand strong, the tomb is empty!

The scene is sensational and dramatic with the reach of the resurrection reaching cosmic levels.  It is all good news -- so why do we hear, twice, in this short scene these words “Do not be afraid.” First the angel says it to the women, “Do not be afraid.” and then the risen Jesus appears to them on their run back to Galilee and he says, “Do not be afraid.”

Why would our freshly risen Lord, God of heaven and earth, the one who has just defeated death be addressing the fear of two women? Our God is so good, in that as massive and cosmic as the power of the resurrection is, the promises of our God of grace and life are for us, the frightened, doubting, broken children of God. The angel and Jesus speak to our humanity knowing that even though there is now triumph and miracles, there is still the human experience of fear and loss.

Today, Easter worship services around the world will mirror the tone of the Matthew’s dramatic scene.  Bold, brilliant music fills our sanctuary, high liturgy, new Easter dresses and freshly pressed shirts abound.  We raise the bar on this celebratory day and the drama is high...just as gospel writer, Matthew, would want it.  Could we also make space in our Easter Sunday to hear the words of the angel and Jesus, to allow the promises of the resurrection to not only be big and dramatic, but to also be personal and for you.

What if Easter were not all about big music, fancy brunches and your Easter best?
What if the risen Lord were showing up in your life?
If you could hear the words “Do not be afraid” what tomb would burst open?
What stone could be rolled away?

Ruminating on the image of the stone rolled away brought to my memory a church I once visited in Baltimore, MD. This Lutheran church is located in the zip code which holds the most homicides per year in our country...almost all of them being drug related. The people of the church got tired of their parking lot being used for drug sales, they got tired for the corners of the church property not being safe and welcoming places. The first reaction was to lock up tighter, make their church building into a seemingly-safer, more predictable tomb-like building. Of course, nothing changed, no new life was moving, the hostility of the neighborhood was only rising. And then, the Spirit of God began to move in that place. The people of the church felt called to roll away the stone and respond with a love for the neighborhood and a love for the drug dealers and so they starting moving! This little Lutheran church partnered with NA – Narcotics Anonymous and began hosting meetings in their basement. The once a week meeting quickly filled up, so they moved to two a week, then three and in under a year the church was (and still is) hosting 8 meetings a week with over 800 substance addicted people attending.

New life being birthed, the power of the resurrection, it is never all easy or all good.  We live in the tension of great joy and trembling fear, promises of Easter morning and the pain of grief and loss.  That was true in Baltimore, the deals still happen on the corners, the unthinkable is all too common in that zip code. Yet, the people of God now have a voice too! The presence of NA empowered the church to begin an after school program...that church is a witness to the hope of new life.

I recently heard someone say, “We are an Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” And for a split second that sounded right to me.  The world out there does seem pretty dark and cruel.  But then a truth hit and I knew...that statement is alienating and wrong. Quite frankly, I’m not all that good and righteous... I’m not sure any of us are all that good and righteous to place ourselves in the glory of Easter morning and place the rest of the world in Good Friday. If we are an Easter people it is because of what Jesus has done...and if Jesus has raised us up with the brilliance of this day, then hasn’t Jesus also promised this new life to the world? We are not an Easter people living in a Good Friday world...we are God’s people living in God’s world.  The world is not stuck on a perpetual loop of Good Friday, if we want to cast “the world” aside like that, then we are the ones living without hope. God is alive, our Savior lives and this astounding, shocking, miraculous news is for the whole of this world that God so loves and it is for you.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, do not be afraid, for our Savior is not in the tomb.  God’s great love has once again shaken the earth with power, do not stay stuck in the tomb, but step out in faith and hope. Do not be afraid.

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Good Friday Protection

Good Friday 2017
Year A
*True confession, this is a re-worked Good Friday sermon I wrote a few years back. Unfortunately, the themes of selfishness, oppression, and fear remain strong in our world, so it still spoke to the current truth of Good Friday.

We all need protection. We worship inside tonight to be protected from outside forces – the cool breeze, wild animals, the falling darkness.
There is so much that we want protection from. As we are bombarded by horror stories on the nightly news...we are more and more aware of every threat, every potential for harm, every dark corner, every danger is raised. We are oh, so aware of all that we want protection from.

In the passion story according to the gospel of John there is a constant theme of protection. The acts of protecting are not overt, the acts of protecting do not help everyone. Certainly, Jesus was not protected. But at every step Jesus was the one protecting.

In the garden, at the moment of his arrest Jesus steps forward to meet the military detachment, meaning 600 military soldiers. 600 armed men all for the arrest of one unarmed man. Jesus steps forward and says, “leave the others alone, it is me you are looking for.” Protection is present for every other person in that garden. Even Judas, even the betrayer is protected.

And while he is walking the road in Jerusalem, the slow, heavy and death-filled march with the cross Jesus stops. Jesus looks at his mother, the woman who bore him in a crude animal stall and who will now watch him die like a crude animal. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is standing next to a disciple when Jesus says, “Woman, here is your son.” And then, to the disciple, “Here is your mother” introducing person to person, protecting his family, protecting his followers. Jesus is making sure that no one will be left alone in their grief and despair. Jesus is giving protection from emotional isolation, protecting his mother from all that it meant in that day for a woman to be without the connection to a man. Even as he walks with the cross on his back, Jesus is offering surprising and meaningful protection right where it is needed the foot of the cross.

Jesus is even protecting the Word of God. Throughout the reading of the gospel we heard the recurring theme of Jesus doing something or saying something in order to fulfill what had been written. Since the beginning of creation, God's word has been giving hints and glimpses into what the life and death of Jesus would mean for the world. And here, throughout the passion story Jesus is obedient to the Word of God. Jesus is obedient to what the prophets spoke in God's name. Jesus is protecting the promises and will of God, so that our sinful and broken world might know judgment and saving grace through this cross he is carrying. Those simple words, “to fulfill what the scriptures have written” are historical and rich acts of protection.

There is so much that we need protection from, and Jesus is the one offering the protection for us. And what about those that need protection from us?

Who protects Jesus from our sin and our pride?
Who protects from our foolishness and lack of compassion?
Who protects those in the world who are most vulnerable? We remember the persecuted Christians in Egypt, the civilians in Syria, the peaceful Muslims in our own country, the mentally ill, the elderly, the lonely.

When our pride and fear and hardened hearts keep us from speaking up or acting out, who protects the least among us? Who protects from the news headlines and the alarmist reports? Who protects the victims of hatred and cruelty? Who protects those that suffer from emotional pain and persecution? Who protects when we're too busy, too good, too selfish, too righteous?

The unarmed, betrayed, rejected one. Why does Jesus protect us? To save us from all suffering and evil? No, we are not rescued from hurting and sorrow, nor are we protected from the cross of dying. Jesus protects us from every being alone, Jesus protects us from surrendering to the darkness of our lives by creating a way – through death and life – to the God of love, the God of relationship, the God who suffers with us, the God who ultimately forgives by the way of suffering and death and love.

Jesus takes all of this to the cross and protects us by uniting us with the criminal, the forgotten, uniting us even with the ones we hurt, with the least and lonely, with those who are sick, with those who are dying.

And who protects Jesus? No one.

You do not.
I do not.
God does not.

Jesus is on the cross, alone, forsaken.
And he speaks, “It is finished.”

Our separation from God – it is finished.
The ruling of darkness is our world – it is finished.
The brokenness of our hearts – it is finished.
The final word of death – it is finished.

All of this, finished, in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Only Jesus Christ has truly offered the protection we so desire and need, and we have to live with that, and in that.
It is finished.

Membership and Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday 2017
Year A
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

I have been thinking a lot about membership lately.  Maybe it is because we have a new member evening coming up next week, maybe it’s because I restarted our family membership to the YMCA, or maybe it is because of this night, these scripture readings and this Savior that I have been musing about membership, inclusivity, what it takes to be a church.

When the bureaucratic higher ups of the church want to know about our membership what they expect in return are numbers. They want to know how many people are here on Sundays, how many folks remain on our roster and who many households are giving regularly to support the ministry here.  Now, you are all savvy enough to know that those numbers describe certain elements of a congregation, but in no way do they define the church or exhaust the multifaceted ways in which we come together as a spiritual community.

I fear our human inclinations to organize ourselves are typically marked with such formalities, clear lines we can draw around ourselves and then around others.  We like to know who are “members” are, who are family is so that we know exactly where our allegiances should lay.  When families do not fit the mold, when church attendees are different than the mainline, when neighbors look, act, or think differently -- we begin the human inclination of line drawing, label making.

At a church I used to work at there was a group of older woman that always sat on the same side of the large sanctuary, about three from the front.  They labeled that pew “widow’s row”.  I was working as a musician at the time and spent many a service up in the balcony overlooking the sanctuary filled with people, but always found myself wondering about widow’s row.  They looked so neat and orderly with their differing shades of silver hair filling the pew.  One day I asked Lolly about when she began sitting in widow’s row.  She said she never really had a choice, the first time she showed up to church after her husband’s death, the women surrounded her and brought her right up to her new home pew in the sanctuary.  Lolly said it was not until her husband’s death that she realized coming to church was probably really difficult for those who did not fit the mold of a “normal” church family.  Lolly said something I will never forget during that conversation, she said I think I’ve always been friendly as someone who came here with my spouse and family, but I don’t think I was always welcoming, not like those widows were to me on my first Sunday back.  Friendly, yes...welcoming, maybe not.

I thought of my conversation with Lolly when I read the scene of Jesus washing the disciples feet.  It seems, at first glance, like a really “nice” story, just a friendly teacher doing a friendly thing for others.  Yet when Peter gets embarrassed by this act of humility and intimacy, Jesus’ response signals to us that this is so much more than a friendly gesture.  Jesus says, “Unless I wash your feet, you will have no share with me.”

Jesus is showing Peter, who will soon lead the community of Jesus’ followers and build the church, how a community that is united by Jesus will be defined.  Jesus wasn’t counting their feet, he wasn’t checking out the quality of their sandals to see how much money they may have, he didn’t even check to see who was in a proper family or Jesus wanted this community to be unified by the grace and generosity of God.

That is what tonight is all about.  We began with confession, remembering our sin, remembering our part in exclusion, and then there is the intimate gesture of hand washing (do not be surprised when we take the courageous step to feet washing).  Jesus took the posture of what a nameless slave would sometimes do, but often, with the dusty, dirty nature of feet at this time even a gracious host would simply make clean water available to their guests and they would be washing their own feet.  Jesus steps over the social boundaries, he moves away from the place of honor at the table and aligns himself with the lowliest of people.  He takes off the robe, wears and towel and insists that the unifying act of his people will be that they are washed, touched, and loved through the humble servanthood of God.

The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin word for “command”.  Tonight is “Command Thursday” and Jesus’ command to us is clear “Love one another as I have loved you.” Please notice this is not the golden rule “treat others like you would like to be treated” -- our human nature does not define the church of Christ, thank God!

Jesus says we are to love one another with a posture of humility, awareness, nurture and love as he did on that night when even though he stared death in the face, even though he knew God had placed all things into his hands, he still picked up the basin and towel and loved first.  Like those women in widow’s row who had looked death in the face, then waited for their new sister in grief and ushered her into a row of support and belonging, could we, the church in the valley, take a posture of such welcoming?

Amidst bombings, international tensions, hostility in our own land, tragic deaths in our church, let us pray with our whole hearts...God, help us to love one another has you have so loved us.  Amen.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

In which the word "Blessed" is ruined for you

1.29.17 MLC
Epiphany III
1 Corinthians 1 18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

“What makes a disciple?”

That had to be a serious, daunting question hanging over the heads of the disciples as they followed Jesus away from the growing, demanding crowds up the mountain.  I guess the first answer to the question “What makes a disciple” is that these men get some very exclusive air-time with him.  

Since dropping their nets, leaving life as they know it, the disciples have been busy with Jesus who is ever on the move. Jesus has been traveling to villages and cities and drumming up all sorts of attention due to his healing of the sick and outcast of society.  The fame of this movement and this man has been spreading.  Questions as to his movement were beginning to stir, and without the aid of social media or even irritating mailbox propaganda, the only real way to figure out what Jesus was up to at this point in his life was to, quite literally, follow him.  The crowds grew, the intention of the crowds were varied -- some were drawn to Jesus, some had been baptized by John the baptist, many wanted to see political upheaval and thought maybe this Jesus was finally the one to bring liberation from Roman rule.  Maybe he was the one to build up a kingdom full of power and might and throw unjust rulers from their thrones.  So the citizens of the world began to fall in line and the verse right before this morning’s reading says and great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” A diverse, growing following is trailing behind Jesus, no wonder the powers in the established kingdom where wathcing with suspicion...

This would have been the time to make a really great speech, surely Jesus would turn and start preachin’ to the masses, and secure the loyalty of all these people, right? No. Jesus is not interested in being a savvy politician or preacher, he wants to be very, very clear about his intentions and the kingdom of God and so he manages to leave the crowds and hike up the mountain with his closest disciples to do some in-depth teaching on what following Jesus really means.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying...‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

And on and on the blessings go.

What does this word, “blessing” really mean? Well, let us be wise to remember that over 2,000 years of human history have passed and the way in which we hear and use this word has evolved since these utterances of Jesus.  The greek word here is “makarios” and there is no one, English word that really sums up it’s meaning.  This greek word is typically defined as “happy, grounded, contented”.  Jesus is echoing a phrase we see frequently in the book of psalms and proverbs from the Old Testament, in those writings there are many saying that start out “Happy are those…” or “happy is the one who…” so this rhetoric may have been familiar to the ear of the disciples, it harkens them back to the Torah and God’s law.

Now, you and I use this word all the time -- right? Sometimes it’s light and easy, “I was blessed by the vacation I just took” I have a friend who used to claim she had great parking-lot blessing, always able to that one spot in a crowded lot, parking-lot blessings.  And other times this word is sigh after a difficult chapter of life, “I was so blessed by the support I received” or “I’m so blessed by my family”.  I would like to suggest, as the risk of ruining this word for you forever, that what we really mean when we say “blessed” is “gifted” or “grateful” .  We’re typically taking stock of something good that came upon us.  

And the reason why I think this little vocabulary lesson is important is the way in which Jesus uses the “makarios” “blessed are they…” If I were to ask you, “Who here wants to be blessed?” You’d probably think “yeah, I’ll take something good...promotion, happiness” And maybe that’s how Jesus is starting out this teaching with his disciples.  “Who here sitting on the mountain wants to be blessed?” And then Jesus starts this descriptive work, “poor in spirit, meek, mourning…” Can’t you just see the disciples slowly lowering their hands? Nah, nevermind Jesus, not what I thought the whole blessing thing would be.  

So many were looking to Jesus to rise to power.  So many were hoping that Jesus would affirm the very religious, those that were already sit in the sweet spot of their communities, highly respected and regarded.  Many were hoping Jesus would build a kingdom and they wanted a seat high up in it.

Jesus knows our hearts, Jesus knows what we are really seeking and so he gets up on the mountain to clarify to the disciples what the kingdom of God will be like.  He is describing what this journey of ministry will be like for the disciples, for the people Jesus will encounter and ultimately he is pointing to the cross of suffering and persecution.  

What makes a disciple? Indeed, we are blessed to be a disciple, but we must be wise to remember what that word means when spoken by our Savior who was born in humility, who dined with the shameful ones, who healed the untouchables, the refugee who was persecuted, betrayed and executed...when you know his whole story the floor pretty well drops out of the bottom of this word “blessed”.

The beatitudes, this litany of “blessing” that appears here in Matthew’s gospel and also in Luke’s is not about us at all! The beatitudes is just the beginning of Jesus revealing to his followers the nature and a vision of God Almighty.  

And where is this God intensely present and at work in our world? Listen in to the beatitudes again, the pattern is fairly clear…

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit and those who mourn,
‘Blessed are the meek and ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
‘Blessed are the merciful and ‘Blessed are the pure in heart
‘Blessed are the peacemakers
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted like the prophets before...
This is the upside down, inefficient, favoring, healing movement of God and we, as disciples of Jesus, are invited to be present and working in the kingdom what blesses those Jesus speaks of here.

Even though this is a popular piece of scripture, and we’ve all probably encountered it is still surprising, isn’t it? This is the kingdom God is building? This is the life of listening to the voiceless, comforting the suffering, working for peace and righteousness that we, the church of Christ, are called to.  And this is the blessing of our God to us which somehow is not about us at all, but rather we are swept up into a kingdom that honors our marginalized, suffering neighbor first.  As theologian Henri Nouwan once wrote, “For Jesus there are no countries to be conquered, no ideologies to be imposed, no people to be dominated.  There are only children, women, and men to be loved.”

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Stop, drop, & march

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

What makes a disciple? If the breakdown of the makeup of a disciple of Jesus could be jotted down on a recipe card, maybe it would start with a splash of baptismal waters, a heaping spoonful of grace, a cup of invitation, mix-in healing, welcome and feeding, and mix it all together by the Holy Spirit.  Whatever ingredients are needed, they are all given to us in these weeks during the season of Epiphany as Jesus gets into the controversial, subversive mission of breaking open the kingdom of God. Last week the featured ingredient was invitation.  The invitation from Rabbi to a searching group that simply said, “Come and see.”  This week is a similar type of story with Jesus on the move, fulfilling the prophetic word with his travel and hanging out by the sea.  
One day, while on a walk by the Sea of Galilee Jesus spotted a couple of brothers working as fishermen and invited them too to come and be a part of sharing the good news of God’s love for the world.  There was no new-member class, no memorizing of commandments or writing a faith statement, -- these guys, these stinky fishermen of no regard were invited by Jesus.  He didn’t even check to see if they were aligned with the right political party or if their socio-economic status would make them upright and proper church leaders! None of that mattered of course, all that mattered was their nonverbal response, they released and dropped their fishing nets and without question followed Jesus.  They left their boats, their family, any ideas of their own identity and instead wandered off to work in a controversial, subversive movement of breaking open the kingdom of God.  
Fast forward a couple of decades and we are hearing the apostle Paul giving counsel to a newly formed faith community in Corinth.  He doesn’t exactly invite the community to drop their nets, or quit their jobs and leave their families, yet there is a similar call to lay down their allegiances.  The community had bonded together because of their faith in the resurrected Jesus, but division had festered in the community, cliches formed, and allegiances to community leaders formed sects within the church.  The church to which Paul writes more likely numbered in the dozens than in the hundreds. But small as they may be, leadership styles are just one of the ways they have found to divide themselves: worship practices, sexual ethics, social and economic class, spiritual gifts, and education level all appear in the letter as instances of division too. Some say they belong to Apollos, some say they belong to Paul and Paul, with his typical brash corrective tone says, “Can Christ be divided? Thank God I didn’t baptize more of you because that would mean more division!” This letter that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth is a letter on community building, on being unified by the one, eternal power of our world -- the love of God known in Jesus.
Jesus invited the disciples to drop their nets and work for the kingdom.
Paul teaches the church to drop their allegiances and work for the kingdom.

Yesterday with somewhere around 90,000 of my neighbors I stood on the lawn of the state capital.  To be honest, I was hesitant to share this experience with you for fear that assumptions would be made about my political leanings, my social agendas or my beliefs as a woman in this world. I did not march in total agreement with every sign I saw or every organization represented, and before I made the choice to go I wanted to get clear in my own head and
heart what I was about and what I believed to be the core of my identity in such a time and place as this.  I still have a lot of questions about how we, as Christian sisters and brothers are to live in this world, but one thing I felt clearly was that I was called, not to be against something, but to be for someone.  In all the madness of our world, the purpose and call upon me actually felt clear -- I was called to be a neighbor.  Being a neighbor implies some close proximity to another and also some knowledge of that other.  How can I be a humble, supportive neighbor in my neighborhood or city if I do not know my neighbor? So I marched yesterday so that I could listen to minority voices, to learn more about being a neighbor and I held a sign that said “Do justice, love mercy and walk (or march) humbly with your God” this word comes from the prophet Micah.
And putting one foot in front of the other, one smile passed along to a stranger, one hug passed along to a new friend, felt a little bit like dropping my net, dropping all prior allegiances and answering the call to love God and love neighbor before self.
For identity markers, we still look to things like race, age, economic circumstances, education, and geographical region to create meaningful boundaries and to identify our tribes. It was true of the earliest church and the habit of division is a hard one to kick. If our congregations manage to build community -- to have, in Paul’s words, “the same mind and purpose” -- across the standard identity markers, they are “practicing diversity.” We think of them as a remarkable social experiment. Paul, however, would regard such a community, gathered by the Spirit in the name of Christ, to be simply a church. (
For Paul, the death and resurrection of Christ signals the beginning of an age in which all the ways the Corinthians have divided themselves into groups just aren’t any longer interesting, important or defining. To be baptized is to be joined with all the other baptized to the risen life of Christ and to be, as Christ is, numbered among God’s children. In our baptism, we have all the identity and purpose we need.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Jesus is, what?

Christmas Eve 2016

This is the night Love was born.  This is the night we sing some of the most familiar melodies of all time and hear a story that many of us could give a pretty accurate re-telling of, even if you haven’t picked up a Bible in years. This is the night that God Almighty, all-powerful and all-knowing chose to be confined to a human state.  This is the night God revealed that Divine nature would be humble and fragile, and that Divine entrance would be announced by shepherds and angels.  God on high living among the lowly, eternal presence becoming mortal, maker of all things being carried in the womb of a teenager -- all these confounding characteristics are what we call the incarnation.

Incarnation is a pivotal cornerstone of the Christian faith, the understanding of God’s place in our lives and world is born out of the incarnational promise that God is not watching us from a distance as crooner Bette Midler would have us believe, but our Lord and Maker is instead intimately working and redeeming us as we struggle with our own lowly, mortal lives. Martin Luther said it this way,
“This is the kingdom of faith in which the cross of Christ rules, throwing down the divinity we desired and recovering our humanity and despised weakness of the flesh we abandoned.”
The incarnation of God in the form of the Christ child was God being God and though we are rebellious and proud, in this birthing moment we are freed and made into the people of God.
This loving act of incarnation is the foundation of the Christian faith, yet we don’t hear so much about this at Christmas time. Incarnation doesn’t exactly fit into the catchy Christmas tunes or read so well on a necklace.  During the Christmas season which begins sometime in mid-October we hear of “cheer” and “wonder” which look so great on Christmas cards and “hope” and “joy” fit onto the ornaments. Now, cheer and hope are beautiful things to be lifting up and sending out into our communities, but I dare say that they do not even begin to capture the fullness of the incarnational gift of the Christ child. But who can fit “incarnational gift of the Christ child” on the Christmas card?
Is it possible, that over the years, have we become desensitized to the miracle of Emmanuel?
Are we too familiar with the story to gasp at the promise born as a baby?
Does the incarnational gift of the Christ child have a place in our lives?

Or, to put it more succinctly -- Jesus is, what?

Let’s tell the truth for a moment, many of us are more than ready to turn the calendar to a new year.  The year of 2016 has been full of trials and tribulations -- national, community, person trials.  I stumbled upon an article that was laying out the most significant events of 2016 and as I read my way through the list there was a clear theme of division and hatred, prejudice and the pervasive sin of indifference.

Our national election, international hacking, the Syrian humanitarian crisis and continued civil war, increases of shootings on people of color and hate crimes.  Water crises in Michigan and North Dakota and the unknowing the fate of so many refugees, families, and children.

Does that incarnational gift of the Christ child really have anything to do with our bound, violent, reality?

Tonight we confess our faith and by the power of the holy spirit we say “Yes”.  Yes, our Savior’s birth must speak to our lives and to the lives of the lowly in our world. People of God, we are the people of God because of this Christ child.  We are washed in waters of forgiveness, we are told to go to the manager and see the Messiah, the promised One fulfilling the promises of God and liberating all those who are in captive to sin and self. We are invited to work in God’s kingdom which, as Luther said, is ruled over with the cross of mercy and favors the lowly, the hurting, the marginalized, the sinner. We are promised that God Almighty has made us into a new creation, a creature of redemption and hope and life eternal.  People of God, that is how the incarnation touches us, transforms us.

And if that all sounds like churchy-high-holy speak, and sometimes, it does to me too...then we need to pause even longer at the manger until we can see the miracle of Emmanuel, until the familiar story of Christmas becomes the story we live, until we can see the incarnational gift of the Christ child pushing us to serve our neighbors because they are hurting and holy too.

A few nights ago I was having dinner with some college friends and ended up sitting across from my dear friend who is also a pastor.  She began telling us a story about a woman from another culture and country who is now working in the US as a surgeon.  This woman was thriving professionally but suffering emotionally and spiritually.

During her wandering in a foreign land this woman somehow wandered into my friend’s church just a few weeks ago as the Advent season was beginning.  She was greeting with a smile, she was offered a seat in the sanctuary, she was welcomed to share her beautiful singing voice with the choir.  And after two weekends of this kind treatment she told my friend, the pastor, that she had never experienced this God before. Being welcomed and accepted by church ushers and choir directors this woman felt as though she did not dare leave the parking lot for fear that she might fall from grace and this love she had experienced would go away.  You see, the narrative for her whole life was comprised of messages of not-belonging, not being worthy enough or clean enough or loved enough to enter into a holy space like a church.  With reverence and awe my friend told this woman about Jesus, born in the most unworthy, unclean way who came with love for every single person on this earth. My friend told me this story with tears in her eyes, she felt the miracle of the Christmas birth she had heard so many times before because she was seeing it come to life for the first time in the heart of a stranger. The power of grace covered both the wandering woman and the pastor as they encountered each other.

Tonight we worship God because Jesus has been born and hearing of redemption in another’s story gives us the the response to that “So, what?” question.

The implications of this “incarnational gift of the Christ child” are astounding! Through God’s embrace of our lot and our lives, we not only learn about God – that God is love, that God will not give up on us -- we also learn something about ourselves and, indeed, the whole creation. That we have worth. That we and the whole creation is of precious value to God. God came to dwell in ordinary human flesh and in this way hallowed it and all creation and so set the pattern for us to similarly honor each other and the whole created order.
God does see the suffering of our world and out of love brings the incarnational gift of the Christ child to all those who live in when you light your candle tonight, I encourage you to sing and pray not just for yourself, but also for the homeless, the refugee, the young parents, the wars in our world, the injustice we live in.  Because this story about a homeless refugee born to an unwed teenage mom in an occupied land has something to say to us. And may that grace be born in us, brilliantly and fervently lighting this world.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

Come, Lord Jesus.  Amen.