A Happy New Year (sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas)

When my youngest son, Jesse, was a baby – only about three months old, my mom got very sick and was sent to the hospital in Saint Cloud. My dad’s health was so poor he couldn’t be there with her and with St. Cloud being a couple hours from our hometown she didn’t have any friends or her pastor nearby – and I couldn’t stand the thought of her being in the hospital with no one around her, so I took some vacation time to come up to Minnesota to be with her. I brought Jesse with me and Owen stayed back with my Chad in Colorado and each day Jesse and I would spend as much time with mom in the hospital as we could.

As I would sit by mom’s bedside holding Jesse I would think about the stark contrasts of my life just then. There I was holding this brand new little person, who was round-cheeked and full of health and smiles and new beginnings. And next to me was my mom, grayish and weary with tubes coming out of her arms, full of sickness and seeming very much to be at the end of her days. It struck me – how beautiful and broken life could be all at the same time. So much joy and so much sorrow intermingling and making up those days.

We are still in the Christmas season – just last Sunday we were gathering around the manger and welcoming a new baby – Jesus, the Christ, our Savior was born. Our Gospel was all about Light and Love coming into the world – pure joy and beauty.

And here we just a week later and we have probably the worst Gospel text we ever get in our three-year rotation of Sunday morning scriptures. King Herod, full of fear and jealousy, wanting to protect his throne from this infant king has put out a hit on all the children two years old and under in and around Bethlehem. Pure brokenness and horror.

Turns out the Christmas season can hold its’ share of joy and sorrow as well.

King Herod ruled in Judea for 37 years. He built many fortresses, aqueducts, theatres, and other public buildings and generally raised the prosperity of his land, however, there was a dark and cruel streak in Herod’s character that showed itself increasingly as he grew older. He was prone to intense jealousy and it is recorded that his mind was so poisoned against one of his wives, Mariamne, that he murdered her, her two sons, her brother, her grandfather, and her mother.

We know the story about how he sent the wise men to go and search for baby Jesus and when they found him they were to send word back to King Herod. He told them he wanted to pay homage to this baby king as well. But then after the wise men found the baby Jesus and brought him the famed gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. Herod’s darkness overcomes him when he finds out that the wise men haven’t done as he told them to do. Rage fills him and that is when he calls for the murder of these children.

It’s worthwhile to note that this story in our New Testament, only told by Saint Matthew, is never told anywhere else in any historical records. This has caused some historians to question if it ever really happened or not. Others say that it probably did happen – especially knowing Herod’s temperament – but the amount of children of that age in and around Bethlehem was such a small number, perhaps less than twenty, that it just was not recorded by other historians.

But regardless of the stories historicity, there is something deeply fitting about Matthew telling this story in his gospel even as we are still basking in the glow of the Christmas season. No matter how much we have tried to sanitize and tame the story of the birth of Jesus, turn it into a sweet story about a baby in a manger, the truth is that he was born into a world of sin. A place that then, as now, holds its’ share of both startling beauty and unspeakable darkness. He was born to be Light in that darkness. To be hope when all other hope seems lost.

Is he light in your darkness? Does God’s word bring you comfort and peace in times of distress? Do you find strength for your days and wisdom for your journey as you kneel at the foot of the cross? Do you long for more light, more comfort, peace, and strength?

If you are hoping to feed your Spirit in this new year, to feel more plugged in to the Source of Life – there are ways to do this. The first way toward that comes through prayer. It comes through daily making a practice of talking to and listening for God. It comes through meditation, stillness. You know how when someone is trying to speak to you but if you aren’t paying attention or only half-listening, you miss it? That’s how it is when we don’t make time for prayer and devotion in our days. God is always speaking to us, but much of the time we aren’t paying attention – we are so busy running from one thing to the next, filling our minds with noise, making lists, checking our phones, that we leave hardly any room for the Spirit to move. Just a couple days ago, I went to the eye doctor and I had brought a book with me for while I were waiting – but over the course of the appointment as I was ushered from one room to the next, of course they dilated my eyes and then I had to wait for a bit in a waiting room with my eyes dilated. I couldn’t read my book. I couldn’t check my phone. I had to just sit there quietly. It is moments like that when I realize how seldom I am just still without doing something or reading or watching something – I’m always filling in those spaces.

It struck me as I read our Gospel that it was twice in dreams that God gave a message to Joseph – first to tell him to take his family and flee, to become refugees, immigrants in a strange land, because they were in danger and then the second time to once again take his family and go to Israel.  It had also been in a dream when Joseph was informed that Jesus would be born. Dreams – and visions – (which are simply dreams while awake) were written about all the time in the Bible. God used visions and dreams to communicate with people – in fact, when there was a lack of dreams or visions among the people, it meant that something was wrong, that people weren’t paying attention to God.

Just doing a quick search I could find at least 39 times in the Bible when God spoke to people through dreams and visions. God didn’t just speak to people of old – God is still speaking to us and through us. The only question is, are we listening?

And the best way to listen is to well, listen. Monks set aside hours for lectio divina – or spiritual reading. However, even we non-monks need to make time for transcendent matters – such as beauty, creativity, service, faith – but too often these get pushed aside for more urgent demands, and life begins to feel empty and purposeless. So my first challenge for you in this new calendar year is to make time to listen, be still, and pray.

And the second excellent way to feed your spirit and feel connected to what is important is this:  find a way to serve. Partly because there are countless places and people that need help, but mostly because you need it. We all need to daily remember God put us here not just to get through our days and collect as many things as possible while we do it, but to make those days matter. As Jesus came to be Light in our darkness, every day we can be light in the darkness for others. What a magnificent and beautiful and holy thing – and we get to be a part of that.

So a new year begins. How lovely we get to begin it here in worship, our hearts centered on the One who made us and loves us most of all – and as we do, my challenge for all of us this year is that we come to this place every day – not to this church building – but to this place of worship – through moments of devotion and prayer, through daily looking for ways to serve God and others.

And when we do, it truly will be a happy new year.  

Let’s pray –

Oh God,

Thank you for this new year – a fresh slate upon which to draw

May we draw love – bringing mercy and grace and goodwill into every room we enter.

May we draw justice – standing up for others, never allowing hate or prejudice to thrive.

May we draw stillness – quiet moments with You, giving us strength and wisdom for our days.

May we draw compassion – reaching out with the time and energy we have to do good in our church, community, and world.

May we draw creativity – imagining new ways to share your love

May we draw strength and guidance only from You, our maker and redeemer, our light, our life our hope. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Better Than Before

I read a lot of books in 2016 and happened to end the year with a book perfect for the beginning of a new year, “Better Than Before” by Gretchen Rubin. I was familiar with Rubin through other books and her podcast and was particularly interested in this book after I heard her interviewed on another podcast. The power of this book is that it doesn’t prescribe “you should do this” – rather, it helps the reader consider his or her own personality and what methods might work best for each person in seeking some new goals. I liked this approach and also found the book affirming in that she mentions some tactics that I had already learned to employ for myself over the years.

She says there are four categories of people – Obligers, Upholders, Rebels, and Questioners – and once you figure out which category you fit into, this will help you see better how you successfully form habits (or don’t.) I took her quiz to figure out which category I am and I don’t fit neatly into any. I hear she is working on another book about these four categories and I look forward to seeing it as she writes about this more in-depth.

One of the helpful habits she discusses is that of scheduling – that it can be helpful to schedule the habit into your day, but also to schedule a break. For example, if I know I am going to be at a party and won’t be able to stick to my habit of eating clean for that meal, to schedule parameters within which I will work for the party and then go immediately back to my regular habit after that. I tried that this week with a gathering I needed to attend. I knew that for that luncheon, pizza was on the menu. I decided before I left for the luncheon that I would have two slices of pizza, no alcohol, and then go back to life as usual right afterward. Scheduling this brief “break” helped me not feel deprived but also feel still very in control.

Rubin’s book is easy to read and great food for thought. I highly recommend it to anyone looking to understand themselves a little bit better and wanting to figure out habits that will help them increase their joy in everyday life.

The Day After Christmas

A blizzard sweeps across the fields

I won’t go to the church today.

My 200-foot commute is unnecessary

As no one will be coming by my office.

If I am needed, they will call me.

Today, I stay at home and pray –

exercise, watch a movie, read, and write.

It’s a mandatory day of peace and quiet –

And I rejoice in this snow paralysis.

It’s the day after Christmas

And a nap is whispering my name.

Soon enough the wind will die down

The drifting will cease

And I’ll make my way back toward the stained glass structure of my life…

But not today

this day after Christmas.

A Pastor’s Christmas Eve Prayer

I’m listening.

Still my spirit.

Still the voices in my head.

Let me hear You.

Directing my deeds.

Directing my words.

Directing my days.

This Christmas Eve.

Every day.

Every year.

The chatter is loud inside my head –

Presents to wrap!

Sermon to practice!

Chores to do!

Christmas chatter.

So I pray for ease –

To give gentleness and joy and a spirit of peace to all who come to worship today.

Let the anxiety be.

No need for it.

People bring enough of their own anxieties – there is plenty to go around without my contribution.

God is near.

God is here.

Emmanuel.

Blue Christmas

(written for December 21, 2012)

Shortly after my mom died, some friends bought a nice wooden and iron bench for our yard in memory of her. It sits under the mulberry tree behind our house and I like to go sit out there in the evening sometimes.  It is quiet place and a place I’ve set apart for remembering and for prayer.  Lots of prayer.

I think of this Blue Christmas or Longest Night service in that way.  It is a time and place set apart for prayer and for remembering and for anyone who is having a hard time finding joy during the Christmas season.  This time of year brings many emotions stirring to the surface and the things that set apart this time of year are not only the joyful things but the poignant things…deep memories, hopes, and longings.  Many are the concerns and cares for our present situations and the world in which we live.

So it is good to have this time together and this place to just be.  We sing some songs, we are sung to, we reflect, we pray, and ask for God’s healing balm on the hurting places.  For us.  For all.

Last Sunday we had our Sunday School Christmas pageant at Our Savior’s.  It’s such a truly good time of the year.  There’s nothing quite like hearing that old, old story of our Savior’s birth being told by the youngest voices of the church.

We had our rehearsals and got the costumes ready to go.  The littlest children who had all been sheep and cows and chickens in the play in years past now wanted to have lines – so we had five angels and seven shepherds and a few extra wise men – but that’s okay.  We had a new baby born in our congregation this year so we were excited we even had someone to play the role of the baby Jesus.

It was a perfect evening with lovely weather, the excited children all showed up on time.  As we stood out on the steps before we processed in I thought about how it was one of those moments I wouldn’t forget as I ran my gaze over the children in their costumes laughing and talking in the twilight and then glanced at the parents inside, poised with their cameras, ready to take pictures with their hearts swelling with pride at their little shepherd, their little wise man, their little angel.  The kids did their parts wonderfully, they sang “Away in A Manger” so sweetly, the play went smoothly.  We really couldn’t have asked for a better evening.

But that evening at the very same time our church was full of all that sweetness and goodness, if you had looked over near the altar, burning silently the whole time was a long line of candles lighted since earlier that morning in memory of other beautiful children, twenty of them, and their teachers who died last week in violence.

Such horrible things, such blessed things, the sum of our days are knit together with both.

Every week at the end of the children’s sermon I say a prayer for the children – that God would guide them and guard them and this last Sunday as I said those same words I always say, the words felt so heavy and strange.  I’m certain Pastors and parents had prayed for those dear children in Connecticut, too, and yet they spend this Christmas grieving unspeakable loss, not getting to watch their child act in the pageant or sing “Away in a Manger.”

It’s times like this when we are forced to remember, in case we ever forgot, that faith in God is not a magic charm that keeps away bad things.  Trust and belief in Christ is not some sort of guarantee that harm will not come.

The steering wheel can still slip, the playground equipment can yet malfunction, the storm clouds could gather, the medicine can stop keeping the illness at bay at any time.  We cannot manage the future or predict what will meet us as we step into each minute.

So what do we do?

We cherish the now.  We do not know what will come, but we give thanks for the blessings there are.  I take a note from Mary, the mother of Jesus here.  One of my favorite verses from the Christmas story is where all these things were happening the night that Jesus was born and Mary was taking it all in.  It reads, “But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.”  The wisest and happiest people are the ones who notice their blessings, take time to treasure the moments while they are happening.

Pause over your coffee, go sit on the step when the breeze is just so, take the long way home, listen to your child’s breath – in and out, in and out – and whisper thanks to God.  These are the holiest moments there are, and when we really notice the loveliness of this world, that is greatest Hallelujah.

What else can we do?

We can trust that God is strong enough to hold the things we place in God’s hands.  It’s something my hometown pastor wrote to me when my mom was very sick and dying that brought me such comfort then and I know it will in my ministry and life for the rest of my days.  He wrote simply, “no matter what happens, Ruth, your mom is held in God’s hands.  And God’s hands are strong.”

Those simple words meant so much to me.  In her last months and days there was nothing we could control – it felt like everything – her life, our time together, our hopes for healing – all of it was just slipping right out of our grasp.  I knew I was losing her.  I knew the sadness of it all was going to be too much for me, I would disappear.  I always used to say that nothing was real until I told Mom about it – so then after she died, obviously, nothing would be real anymore.  The grief was crushing.  It filled me and then emptied me entirely.

But those few words her pastor wrote to me provided the one image of comfort during that time.  In life and in death, she was held safe in God’s hands forever.  She would never slip from his strong embrace.

And the old hymns ran through my brain all the time, their words of comfort and peace and assurance falling fresh on my ears as though I was really hearing them for the first time.        And while I knew that there was nothing I could do to get through that dark time and I knew that the sadness was going to be too much for me, I had a suspicion and a promise that it was not going to be too much for God.  God’s strong hands could hold me as well.

This is the message of hope that can carry us through this longest night and give us strength for seasons to come.  If it seems the illness has lasted too long and the healing will never come, remember you are held in God’s hands and God’s hands are strong.  When the worst thing has happened and so much is broken you are certain you will never be whole again, remember you are held in God’s hands, and God’s hands are strong.  When the diagnosis is grim, when the way is scary, when the promises have not been kept, when it seem darkness is all that will ever be – remember you are held in God’s hands, and God’s hands are strong.

 

 

Did You Find Everything Were Looking For?

The last few weeks I have been in stores more than a few times – and looking for presents as many of you probably have as well.  I was struck by how many employees there were in each store asking me, “Do you need help finding anything?”  “Can I help you find something?”  Then when I would finally make it up to the cashier, usually they would ask, too, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

It struck me as overkill – but I’m sure it was really just good customer service. 

But I’ve been thinking about how we in the church, in our ongoing spiritual journey, have made this journey through Advent and we have arrived at Christmas Eve – how might we respond today if on the way out the ushers asked us to reflect on this season and answer the question, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

Heaven knows we all arrive at Christmas with different needs and expectations.  We arrive having experienced all sorts of joys and sorrows and trouble and good in the last year.  We arrive here sometimes just because someone in our family asked us to come or because we aren’t quite sure what Christmas Eve would be like without this candlelight service or Holy Communion.  We may come with the same prayers we have been carrying around for years or perhaps some new ones, too.  We make our way up highway 6 and then up the snowy drive way and in through the glass doors and into this warm and cozy sanctuary and we sit together and sing and listen and when it’s all said and done, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

A couple years ago on a quiet December evening, my son, Jesse, and I were at the nursing home we went to all the time in our little town in Texas and we were visiting with one of our church members there, Frances, in a waiting room.  Jesse was playing his little handheld video game and I was doing a crossword puzzle with Frances – and finally it came time for us to go and so I went to bring Frances back to her room and Jesse said he would wait for me and keep playing his game in the waiting room.  Well, as I was bringing Frances back to her room, I thought about how I hadn’t seen another one of my parishioners, Olaf, at the Supper table that evening and so I thought I would poke my head in his room to make sure he was doing okay.  His room was just down from Frances’ and it would just take a minute.  Well, it probably took about five minutes because of course Olaf and I started chatting and in the meantime, Jesse had gotten tired of waiting for me, had walked down to Frances’ room and when he didn’t find me there, went outside to see if our car was still there – and of course it was – but I wasn’t with the car, so then he started freaking out and went back to the waiting room, sat down, and started to cry – which was how I found him when I arrived moments later.

“I thought you were gone!” he cried.  “I thought you had forgotten me!” he wailed.  And I reassured him again and again that I would never leave him.  I had been right there all along – just down the hall…but I promised him that in the future if I decided to stop at someone else’s room I would let him know so he could find me.

I felt bad I had caused him to be so upset – but I remember feeling surprised, too, because how could he possibly ever think I could leave him behind?  I would sooner lop off my right arm than ever abandon my children – I couldn’t possibly do it. But I remembered once feeling that same fear as a child once when I was out grocery shopping at our tiny grocery store in Henning with my mom and she told me to go to the cereal aisle to pick out a brand and I loved to do that – I would go and pick the one that looked like it had the coolest prizes, so the task of picking out cereal took me a while – and looking back, I think that was probably nice for my mom because she got to be alone for a few minutes.  Well, I found the cereal and went to find her and I couldn’t see her anywhere.  I went out to the car, she wasn’t there.  I remember feeling tears welling up in my eyes and then finally I spotted her.  She had just gone to the bathroom quickly and now there she was in her dear old black coat and her kerchief on her head – and all was well.

Sometimes we think we are more lost than we are.  Sometimes we are certain we have been abandoned, that all is lost, when the truth is that all is well.

This is the heart of Christmas – this beautiful, joyful Christmas.  On this day, the church resounds not with the question, “Did you find what you were looking for?” –  Rather – with a blessed statement of unchanging truth, “Christ has found you.” Christ has come to you.  Christ is with you.  Always.

In your joy and your sorrow – Christ is with you.

In your victories and your defeats – Christ is with you.

In your hopes and your longings – Christ is with you.

In your strength and in your weakness – Christ is with you.

In your beginnings and your endings – Christ is with you.

On Christmas and every day – Christ is with us.

Thanks be to our newborn king.  In his name we pray.  Amen.