Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sermon: "A Christmas Story"

 “A Christmas Story”

December 25, 2011
Luke 2:1-20

"I bring you good news of a great joy….for unto you a child is born this day in the city of David, and you will find him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger."

This is good news.
This is good news to us because we know who that child is – we know the man he will grow up to be.
We know of his ministry and his teachings.
We know about the healings and the miracles he will perform.
We know that he will bring down the mighty and vindicate the lowly.
We know that he will suffer and die at the hands of those who fear him.
And we know God will raise him up out of his tomb and he will forever be a presence right by our side -
Guiding, comforting, strengthening and redeeming.

We hear the words “and unto you a child is born” and we see Jesus. Emmanuel. God with us.
And hopefully, we feel the great love that he has for us, and the great love that we have for him.

But to those shepherds standing out in that frozen field on a cold winter’s night 2,000 years ago, this GOOD NEWS brought to them by a heavenly messenger must have been puzzling.
Why would the birth of a child in a far away town have any bearing on what happened in their lives?
How could a baby save the world?

They had heard the stories of the great Messiah who was expected to come and vanquish those in power and set the oppressed free, but these were only stories.
These were tales that they told each other every night around the dying embers of the encampment fire.

These were stories that were intended to give them hope, to give them a reason to get up in the morning, to inspire them to go out and stand in that field day after day after day, doing a job that only the lowest of the low were expected to do, scratching out a living that left their stomachs rumbling on more nights than they cared to admit.

They did not want to believe that God had forsaken them.
They didn’t want to believe that it was up to them to lift the weight of poverty and oppression off their shoulders.
They knew they were not strong enough to do it all on their own.

The stories the shepherds told of the coming Messiah kept their hope alive.
The hope that someone greater than they would lift them up and set them free.

A Messiah is just what they needed – but they needed a full grown Messiah – a King, a warrior, a vanquisher – someone who had the power to step up and make their lives better, right here, right now.

What were they to do with a baby?
Even if that baby was the Messiah, few of them could expect to still be living by the time this child grew to assume power.
And if that baby was the Messiah, why tell the world about it now?
You may as well paint a target on the child’s back – every King and political leader in the region would want him dead, and what could his parents possibly do to protect him?
A baby is small, and vulnerable and weak.
The very things a Messiah is NOT supposed to be.

The very things a GOD is not supposed to be.

Which is why even in our time, so many question why we Christians believe this fanciful tale of a God who chooses to come into the world not in a blaze of glory, not through an awesome display of power and strength, but chooses instead to slip into the world in the quiet of a winter’s night, in the form of a crying infant, something so small, so vulnerable, and so weak.
What an improbable, implausible tale.
Who would be crazy enough to believe it?

But we have to ask ourselves, what are we missing if we don’t believe it?

When I was an undergrad working on my bachelor’s degree I took an introductory religion class, and when it came time to discuss Christianity and the incarnation of Jesus one of the students raised his hand and asked how anyone possessing even average intelligence and a rational mind would believe such a fantastical story. 

Why would an all-powerful and infinite God diminish itself by becoming a powerless and finite human being?
Why would an all-knowing God have a need to become human to learn what it is like to BE human when God already possesses this knowledge?
And realistically, how could a being as large as God is said to be, contain itself inside the body of one tiny human being?

I still remember the professor’s response.
She looked at the student with a knowing smile, and said,
“Because an all-powerful God has the power and the ability to do anything that God wants to do.” 

Even if it means becoming small enough to fit inside the body of a squirming infant.

Perhaps God did not need to become one of us to know what it’s like to be one of us - to know what it’s like to feel pain, to feel joy, to feel hopelessness and despair.
Perhaps God didn’t need to incarnate in the body of Jesus to know what it is like to suffer and die.
But perhaps God understood that WE needed to know that God felt and empathized with our pain.
Not as some distant deity, but as a God who is close enough for us to reach out and touch.

And the best way that God knew how to help us feel that closeness was to become one of us.
To know what it feels like to be born kicking and screaming into this world, to feel the chill of the cold night air and the warmth of a mother’s arms against newly bared skin, to look up through clouded eyes and see the faces of joyful parents and curious strangers, to be held in the supportive embrace of a loving community.

What a fantastic way to build a bridge between an infinite God and a finite human being.
God steps into our world, and in the process God allows us to step into God’s world.
As the infant Jesus, God depended upon us for food and shelter and even life. 
And in return, God gave up power and control so that we would know that God understands what it is like to feel helpless and weak.
What an amazing and unexpected thing for God to do.

And what an improbable, implausible tale God has given us to tell.  
Who would be crazy enough to believe it?

Despite their fear and misgivings, those shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night were crazy enough to believe it.
They went to Bethlehem, they saw the child, they believed the angel who told them the good news - that this baby was the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
And when they returned to their homes they told everyone within earshot that the wait was over, that the hope and light of God had been born into the world.

And 2,000 years later, we’re still telling this story, we’re still holding on to that hope, we’re still celebrating and sharing this good news.

Now, some of us may still shake our heads at the implausibility of this story.
We choose instead to see the social ramifications of the Nativity tale.
Jesus is born poor and homeless to an unwed undocumented teenage mother, under the oppressive regime of a totalitarian king. 

Jesus is the poster child for all the social ills and human rights issues that we’re still wrestling with in our time. His birth serves as a reminder to us that great things often come from humble beginnings, and that all human beings have value, even those whom we tend to ignore, dismiss, or outright despise.

But I have to believe that there is more to the story than this.
If this is the sole message of the Jesus story than his story is no different from the thousands of other children who were born in his time, or in our time.
What makes the Jesus story so special is that God chose this moment in time to enter into our story.

On Christmas day we celebrate the moment when God became human and nothing is ever the same after that.
Incarnation means change.
It means God coming into our time and into our space and into our lives and into our comfort zone and shaking things up and causing them to be recreated in a new way.
The incarnation challenges us to initiate change and to be active, co-creators with God in the world around us.

What is the good news we are waiting to hear on this Christmas Day? 
Perhaps like the shepherds we are waiting for a messenger who will tell us that the tide has turned, that the day of vindication and hope has arrived, that God is still with us.
Or, perhaps we have secretly given up hope, in spite of our best efforts at trying to hide our despair with holiday busyness.
Or worse, we may reached the point of assuming that it is entirely up to us to bring the peace that our hearts long for, and God will not bother to intervene at all. 
But isn't Christmas all about God intervening in human history?
Isn't Christmas about God telling us not to give up hope - that it’s not up to us to do this all on our own?  (1)
Isn’t Christmas about hearing and telling a story that is so implausible, it takes a leap of faith to believe it?

Once upon a time, in a far away land, a baby is born.
A baby that in many ways is just like you and me, and in many ways is the personification of who we are meant to be. 
This baby embodies the hope and potential that each new life has to offer the world. 
Yet this baby does not come into this world alone.
This baby has guardians, teachers, companions and friends.
This baby is born helpless just as we all are, and without the gift of human love and compassion, this baby will never grow to be the guiding light that many will come to rely on.
This baby is the expression of God’s love and grace entering into the world, and it is up to us to nurture it to fruition.

This baby is God incarnate.
This baby is all of us incarnate.

And I can’t think of a better story to tell on Christmas morning.

Merry Christmas to us all, and Amen.

1. Kathryn Matthews Huey, UCC Sermon Seeds

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sermon: "Hail Mary, Full of Grace"

“Hail Mary, Full of Grace”

Fourth Week of Advent – December 18, 2011
Luke 1:26-38

She was thirteen.
She was thirteen, and she was engaged to marry a man much older than she was - a man whom she may not have loved or have even known very well.
And here was an Angel of the Lord, standing before her and telling her that out of all the women in the world, she had been chosen.
She was going to give birth to the Son of God.

And Mary responded to this miraculous declaration by saying: “How can this be?”

How can this be?

Do you remember what it was like to be thirteen?
To be stuck in that awkward stage between childhood and adulthood.
When it feels like your emotions and your desires and your whole world are spinning out of control.
And it feels like your skin doesn’t quite fit anymore.
And every time you look in the mirror all you see are the blemishes on your cheeks and the nose that suddenly seems too big for your face.
Parts of you have grown yet others betray the fact hat you are still a child.

And your body isn’t the only thing that is changing.
You once ran freely through life from one moment of joy to the next, not caring or having no awareness of how you looked, or what others were thinking.
Then suddenly you wake up one day and the protective bubble you once lived in is gone.
And you feel all eyes are upon you.
The eyes of your peers. The eyes of your parents and teachers. The eyes of strangers.  Studying. Quantifying. Judging.

When Mary was coming of age in her time and culture things were different.
For one thing, the word “teenager” did not exist – in any language.
Unlike today, the ancient world did not delineate the years between 12 and 20 and mark them as a time of adolescent transition, a time spent with one foot in the world of toys and games and the other in the world of responsibilities and worries.
The concept of adolescence – where one still lives under the roof and guidance of one’s parents after puberty - is a relatively modern invention.

In Mary’s time, when you had the ability to have children of your own you were considered to be an adult.
Which meant you had the responsibilities and burdens of being an adult, without necessarily having the wisdom or the strength to carry either one.

We tend to forget how young Mary actually was when the Angel Gabriel appeared before her.
In classic works of art she is often depicted as a full-grown woman, which she was by the time she sat at the foot of the cross and held Jesus’ broken body in her arms.
But when she gave birth to her first son – the one she was told would be called Emmanuel – God with us – Mary was most likely still a child herself.

Now, we don’t know how old Mary actually was on that first Christmas.  The text of Luke’s gospel makes a point to say that she was a virgin, and betrothed to Joseph but not yet married. Since young women were expected to marry soon after puberty, it is safe to assume that Mary was between 12 and 15 years old.

For those of you who have children that age, or if you remember being that age yourself, you can imagine how Mary must have felt when she was told that she had been chosen by God to the mother of the savior of our world.

Now much is made about the fact that when Mary received this news, she did not hesitate to say, “Here I am Lord…let it be with me according to your word.” [i]
And it is said that the lesson here for us is that we are meant to model Mary’s faith and obedience by responding to God in the same unquestioning manner.

But let’s take a step back for a moment.
Mary’s first reaction to the Angel Gabriel’s deceleration is not to shout confidently, 
“Here I am!” but rather she offers up a question:
“How can this be?”

Mary may have been considered an adult in her time, but biologically she was still an adolescent – with all the aforementioned uncertainties and insecurities swirling around her.
So when she asked the Angel Gabriel, “How can this be?” she probably had more on her mind then a question about the logistics of how she could get pregnant when she was still a virgin. 

We might imagine her thinking,
“How can this be, that this Angel of God is here standing before me?
“How can this be, that God has chosen this moment in time, in this tiny village, to make an announcement about the coming of the Messiah?”
 “How can this be, that God has chosen ME to be the mother of our savior?”

Mary may have wondered,
How could it be that God considered her to be a favored one?
She was just a child, in a world that favored wisdom and maturity.
She was a poor female, in a world that favored maleness and wealth.
And she lived far from Jerusalem, the center of all that is valued and praised.

But as we learned last week, God has a habit of choosing folks who do not consider themselves worthy of receiving such an honor.
Mary would not be the first to respond to God’s call with a question.
Abraham said, "Why me, Lord, am I not too old?"
Jeremiah said, "Why me, Lord, am I not too young?"
Moses and Jonah both said, "Lord, surely there is someone else who is better equipped to do your bidding?"
But Mary didn’t ask, “Why me?” and she didn’t try to get God to choose someone else.
She simply asked, “How can this be?”

Her question appears to come more from astonishment than denial.
It’s the same way we might respond if we’re told we’ve just won a hundred million dollar lottery. (If you can imagine that happening. I’m sure none of us have.)
We might shout out “How can this be?”
It’s a momentary expression of surprise and disbelief because we can’t imagine what we could have done to deserve such a blessing.

And that’s the question that may have been on Mary’s mind.
What have I done to deserve such a blessing?
And the truth is, she didn’t do anything to deserve it.
She did nothing to earn God’s favor.
Because she didn’t need to earn it.

The Angel Gabriel said to Mary, "Greetings, favored one!"
It’s this verse from Luke’s gospel that has we hear echoed in the opening to the familiar prayer  “Hail Mary, full of grace…”
In Luke’s gospel the Greek word used for “favored” shares the same root as the word used for “grace”…and as we all should know by now, we can’t do anything to earn God’s Grace – it is given to us freely.
So we should not be so surprised when we receive it.
But we are surprised, aren’t we?

Regardless of how faithful we are or how often we hear about God’s unconditional grace,
too many of us still think we need to earn it.
Through our obedience, and through demonstrations of our faith.

When I was serving as a hospital chaplain back in Connecticut this past summer, I sat and talked with quite a few folks who were struggling to comprehend where God was in their grief and their pain.
I was consistently confronted with the question, “How can this be?”
But in each case the question was asked not with a tone of joyful astonishment, but rather with mournful resignation.
How can this be?
"How can I have cancer when I have been such a good person all of my life?"
"My mother went to church every Sunday, yet she suffering so much, is this how God rewards her?"
"If I promise God that I will be a better person, will he allow my brother to live?"

These are the questions and the promises that we lay at God’s feet.
The God whom we believe bestows favors and blessings upon those who are obedient and faithful.
But this is not the God of unconditional grace.

The problem may be that we don’t have a clear understanding of what we mean when we talk about God’s grace.
We confuse it with God’s mercy, or God’s forgiveness, and assume that it is something we are given once we take a step towards God - when we repent, or change our ways to be more in line with God’s ways.

But Grace is not mercy or forgiveness.
It is not given to us in response to an action we take.
And it may not even be proper to say that God’s grace is the same as God’s favor, if we think of favor as something that some receive and others do not.

Grace as I understand it is simply this:
Grace is the relationship that God offers to us, and Grace is the way that divine relationship is expressed through us.

We are born into Grace, we were born into a relationship with God the moment we came into existence.  It’s not something we can choose not to have in our life.

Even if we turn our backs towards God in anger or indifference, we still have a relationship with God.     
We may think it’s estranged or nonexistent.
We may think we’re standing far off in a corner, with our arms crossed, and our brows furrowed in disgust.
Or we may feel as if God has abandoned us, and we’ve wandered into a dark corner where God’s light cannot reach.
But in reality God is right there with us, regardless of which direction we’ve turned. 

That’s what grace is.
I have a friend who compared it to standing in an open field with rain pouring from the sky.
Now matter how much we dodge and duck, we’re going to get wet.

And the wonderful thing about God’s grace is that it is an expression of pure Love – so when it flows through us we can’t help but pass it on to others. 
We express God’s grace – the relationship we have with God – by building relationships with others.
By sharing with others the gifts that we’ve been given.
By giving birth to God in this world.

Mary may have only been thirteen.
Before she uttered the words, “Here I am” she may have responded to God’s call with a question – a declaration of uncertainty.
And she may not have had the ability to say yes or no to God’s favor – God’s Grace – because she was born into it just as we all are.
But she did have a say in how that Grace came to be expressed through her.
And she said “Yes” to becoming the mother of God.

Mary gave birth to Jesus, she nursed him, she taught him how to walk and talk, she taught him how to pray.
She encouraged him when he tried new things, and I’m sure she reprimanded him when he pushed back against the rules that she and Joseph had set.
She must have been so proud of him when he began his ministry,
and when he drew the attention of those in power; she must have spent many nights lying awake with worry.
And like all mothers, she undoubtedly tore herself inside out with anguish as she watched him suffer and die.

We don’t know if Mary knew any of this was going to happen when she said “Yes” to becoming the mother of God.
We may chalk it up to adolescent naivety or the fact that as a young girl giving birth in her time and culture there was already a good possibility that neither she nor the child would survive. But this was God’s child and this was a risk she was willing to take.

This is a risk that we are called to take as well.
Every time we express God’s radically inclusive love in this world…
whenever we welcome the stranger, love our enemy, forgive those who trespass against us, and stand up for those who suffer injustice.
This is how WE give birth to God.

The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor describes it this way:

Like Mary, “You can decide to take part in a plan you did not choose, doing things you don’t know how to do for reasons you don’t entirely understand.
You can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees.
You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own body.” [ii]

I love that image, and I love the idea that we’re smuggling God into the world by doing something as subversive as saying “Yes” to giving birth to Grace -
by saying “Yes” to loving others as freely as God loves us.
And we have Mary to thank for being the first to take that risk.

Hail Mary, FULL of Grace.
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
And Blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God
Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.


[i] Luke 1:28
[ii] BBT – Gospel Medicine, Sermon: “Mothers of God”