Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Angels Hung Around

Texts: Isaiah 63:7-9
Matthew 2:13-23

I hope all of you had blessed and love filled Christmas day and are enjoying both leftovers and loved ones in the days that have followed.

Watching Christmas movies with my family, I’ve heard a lot of “this is what Christmas is about” from the characters on screen. Christmas is about truth, about love, about taking a chance, about family. I’ve enjoyed listening to all these statements about what the season is supposed to be, what it’s supposed to inspire in us, because I think they all are speaking to this feeling many of us have, this feeling deep down that Christmas is special and during this season all wonderful things are possible.

We long for Christmas tide to be full of nothing but joy and warmth, moments we can capture on film that we can look back upon when times are challenging and remember the glow of Christmas.

Sometimes we do get Christmases full of glow and love and nothing else. Sometimes we don’t. And even when we have the perfect Christmas, a gentle fresh snow on the ground, all our loved ones together without any of that pesky squabbling, the perfect Christmas ham or turkey or veggie platter that everyone salivates over… Even when we do have this perfect Christmas, you and I know that the feelings of warmth and love don’t last as long as the fruit cake and good tidings don’t ring in our ears all year long.

What happens? The world happens. Too much family togetherness brings up old grudges; those who have trouble feeling close to others are reminded of their isolation during the season that emphasizes kinship; violence erupts even as we worship the Prince of Peace.

The Christmases we experience which turn toward the harshness of the world follows in the unfortunate tradition set by the very first Christmas. Even the first Christmas, accompanied by proclamations from angels, did not usher in an eon of warmth and happiness. The shepherds came and went, as did the wise men, and this child whose birth was lauded by the heavenly chorus finds his life threatened.

Jesus is still a babe who is learning to sit up, eat solid foods, talk, and already the establishment is terrified of him. Herod—determined no king other than him should reign—sends out the troops under his command to eliminate any threat.

Eliminate any threat. As though a child who can’t yet speak is a threat to anything other than a good night’s sleep.

An angel of the Lord sends a message to Joseph to escape. The Holy Family bundles up and get out of Israel and headed toward Egypt. Jesus escaped but there were so many children who did not.

Just like the child Moses who escaped the wrath of Pharaoh when so many other Hebrew children did not, Jesus slips into the night with his mother and father and finds himself in Egypt, the land from which the adult Moses led his people. Just as we celebrate Moses’ journey down the river Nile in a basket, we celebrate Jesus’ escape from Herod’s wrath. How can we, though? How can we celebrate Jesus’ good fortune when so many others suffered?

This is the question we deal with every day. How do we praise God when the little children in this world are suffering? How do we rejoice that some are saved when others are lost?

We celebrate the birth of one child even as we look around and see children facing death – death from hunger, violence, need beyond anything we can comprehend. We see children of God of all ages fighting against the darkness of loneliness, self-doubt, loss of direction, anger, and so much more. Just like in the village of Bethlehem, the Herods of our world are seeking out the innocents for destruction.

This is the hard reality of Christmas, one many of us face in different ways. We want to first find the joy and warmth the season is supposed to bring and then remain in this sacredly serene feeling for the rest of the year. But it never happens that way. We want to praise God for all the good God has done and not be challenged with our praise of the Lord with the truth of evil in this world. But it never happens that way.

Instead of eternal bliss, rather than uncomplicated praise of a god who guarantees only good things to his or her followers, we have this messy and mysterious God who, when we follow, promises something else entirely.

Our Christmas story has been filled with visions and visits from angels. After the Christ-child has been born, the angels hung around, watched after him and his family. We could celebrate this part of the story – the presence of angels – but that isn’t what our text is about, that isn’t what Christmas is about, isn’t what our God is about.

God’s promises are more complicated than visions from angels or perfect happiness – and yet in some ways so much more simple. Isaiah reminds the people of his time and the ages to follow what it is to follow this God, what it is to trust in God’s promises, what and how it is we celebrate Christmas.

“he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”

It was no messenger or angel but God’s presence that saved them.

This—this is what Christmas is about, this is what we celebrate in the midst of the dark of our world.

The story of the massacre of the infants, of the innocents, isn’t just a story of a miraculous escape for Jesus and his family. Jesus escaped death here, yes, but we know what awaits him 30 or so years down the road. This story proclaims to us from the beginning what we will come to know so well throughout his life – Jesus is with us. He is subject to the pain and injustice of this world, he is victim of hatred and prejudice, and through him God is with us in all our suffering, in all things.

It is because of the God we know in the person of Jesus Christ that we can dare to say that even though the infant Jesus was not in Bethlehem when Herod’s soldiers came God was.

Jesus is God with us, Jesus is our salvation, our saving story. Through the person of Christ, God loves us, pities us, redeems us, and lifts us up into to the divine presence.

Through the person of Jesus Christ we know that though the world is not full of bliss, though the glow of Christmas fades and our troubles may seem here to stay, though something as horrific as the murder of these children is proof of the darkness, through Jesus we know our saving story.

Being a follower of Christ isn’t about escaping the clutches of evil… I wish it was. Following Christ can be about that- Jesus wants us to be free from evil, murder, but it’s more complicated.

The promise we have as a Christ follower comes in God’s presence among us – a presence we have known in the person of Jesus Christ and the life-giving and moving Spirit.

Even when our family squabbles, even when we can’t find any more Christmas cheer to light our days and nights, even when the worst we could imagine – beyond what we could imagine – happens, we can take comfort, find our cheer, find our hope in the knowledge that God is with us.

God’s presence gives us hope—hope that things can improve, may improve, will improve, slowly, too slowly to be sure. Hope in something greater than us, hope that what we know and see here and now is not all there is, is not God’s full kingdom, not yet. Hope that once we have departed from this place there is togetherness with God, our salvation, our hope, a togetherness that banishes all tears, all death, all pain.

The Christmas story is full of amazing signs and visions, the glory of God shone through the heavenly chorus singing “Glory to God in the highest!” and the story of Christ’s first days ends in brutality for so many of God’s innocents.

But above all the angels and beyond all the brutality lies the good news - “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”

Rejoice in cheer, rejoice in sorrow, rejoice that wherever you are, God is with you. Amen.

heard on Sunday morning

- coffee, coffee, I need coffee... (me)
- you talk too fast for me to understand you (a 7 year old visitor who I was greeting)
- that started to be quite the downer of a sermon, but I'm glad you got to the good stuff (a member at the 8:30 service)
- you sound kinda British (another member)
- Glory to God in the highest and ah, crap (my 10:30 liturgist practicing).

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Sermon Prep

I'm sitting at home staring at my father who's reading one of my favorite books - Good Omens - wishing I could do the same. Instead, I'm trying to figure out what exactly God wants to say through me this Sunday. My brow is currently on the "scrunchy" setting.

Thought I'd take a quick break and answer a question I know has been just burning on so many minds.

I often am asked "hey, Amy, how'd you come up with that" in reference to my sermons.

Well, let's see. I study the scripture, occasionally break out the Hebrew and/or Greek, enjoy the conversations held during our Monday morning Bible study class, take it with me wherever I go (not literally, though sometimes I do carry around a printed version of the text), and of course this:

Coffee is an essential component of my sermon writing process. I think the Holy Spirit is infused in the coffee beans or something. Really.

On that note, I think I need to go see if I've got any coffee left!


Monday, December 24, 2007

And the Angel Said: "I Bring You Tidings of Great Joy..."

Texts: Isaiah 7:10-16
Luke 2:8-14

Christmas time is here – bringing with it joy for many and sorrow for some, business for shops and carols in the street. For me, Christmas time brings in my family – the whole large, loud lot of them. Parents, grandparents, and this Christmas 4 out of my 5 siblings.

My family, as you may know, is not your traditional family. I have two biological siblings and 3 sisters who are adopted – though not in the legal sense. It can get confusing, I know. My blonde sprite of an adopted sister Dawn doesn’t raise too many eyebrows but I’ve gotten quite used to the puzzled looks that come when I introduce Neli and Nyembe – who happen to be from Zambia – as my sisters. Sometimes people understand right away what I mean; sometimes it takes a bit of explaining that even though we don’t share genes, these amazing women are my sisters.

I mention my family in part to warn you that the Summers-Minette clan has indeed descended upon poor Staunton town, but also because of what being a part of this family has taught me about our scriptures. It is in great thanks to my family that I understand what it means for a child to be born into one particular family but to be born for more than just that family.

In many communities, including the one where my sisters Neli and Nyembe grew up, your family wasn’t just your mom, dad, and siblings. Everyone, unfortunately for you as Neli says, is your parent. People you aren’t related to by blood look out for you, correct you, care for you.

The community Jesus was born into was more like my sisters’ community of origin than ours. When a child was born, he or she wasn’t just born for the particular parents, but for the whole community. The whole community would have a hand in raising this child, guiding this child, loving this child.

Jesus’ Palestinian-Jewish community also had a long tradition of understanding that children may be born with a purpose – they may themselves be a sign. The prophet Hosea had children whose birth and names told of the people’s unfaithfulness to God and the punishment that would come. Even before Samuel – he who is from God - was born, he had been dedicated to God and had been marked as the one who would preside as prophet under Eli.

And then there is the child Immanuel. During the Advent season we remember the child Isaiah spoke of, one who would be born as a reminder to the king of the time that God is with us. King Ahaz was faced with two powerful nations who had united to bring him and Judah down and was looking to align his and his nation’s fate with the current world power – Assyria. The child Immanuel – God-with-us – was born to remind the king that it is God and God alone who Judah needed to rely on for protection—for salvation.

It is no wonder the Gospel writers looked to this child hundreds of years later when Jesus was born. If this child Immanuel was a reminder that God is with us then Jesus is the ultimate reminder, the ultimate fulfillment of that prophecy. For in Jesus, God is with us in a most profound and unprecedented way.

In Jesus too a child has been born for more than just his mother and father – much, much more. Jesus is not just a sign or a reminder, not just one dedicated to God. In Jesus the idea that a child may be born for a people, for a purpose, is realized most fully.

“I am bringing you tidings of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

When the angel speaks to the shepherds of a Savior being born for them – that a child has been born for them – these men in the field understand that this child can indeed – even though he is newborn – that he can already been known as Savior, as something greater for them. If Jeremiah can be called prophet while still in the womb, if Samson can be dedicated as a Nazirite before his birth, then surely at his birth, this child whose name the shepherds do not yet even know can be called Savior.

The world in which the angel brings tidings of great joy is a world where some, like the shepherds, can indeed look upon a child and see the Messiah. They may not yet understand what confessing Jesus as Messiah means, but this child born of Mary is indeed their Savior.

It is because of this child whose birth the angel announces that we are all bound together, regardless of our family, our age, even our location. We too, I hope, can understand how a child born into one family can be born for all of us. It is because of this one who was found wrapped in swaddling clothing that we call the person next to us brother or sister and know that we are theirs. Because of this child, we recognize each person as a child of God.

In the sacrament of baptism we welcome each child of God – whatever their age – as part of our family. We welcome each child of God and promise “to share in worship and ministry through our prayers and gifts, our study and service, and so fulfill our common calling to be disciples of Jesus Christ.” In baptism we proclaim through our ritual and our words that we are connected and that together we will strive to be faithful disciples of Christ.

Writer and poet James Agee said that “in every child who is born, the potentiality of the human race is born again.” We can say that in every child welcomed into the family of the church, the potentiality of the body of Christ is welcomed again. In every child we welcome, in every one of us, the potential for being the true and faithful church is here.

In every child we welcome and in every one of us, we may find both the comfort and the challenge that Christ, who is the head of our body, brought to his disciples.

Being a follower of Jesus is not just about rejoicing in the birth of the Savior. We don’t know what became of the child Immanuel that Isaiah spoke of, but we certainly know what happened to Jesus. Even in the birth story, the writer of Luke does not let us forget what will become of this child. The child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger foreshadows the man wrapped in linen cloth and laid in a rock-hewn tomb.

The babe whom the shepherds welcomed, who was raised by his mother and earthly father as well as his community in Nazareth, was rejected by those who once welcomed him. Jesus did not just care for the sick or the poor; Jesus challenged those who would be unjust and unrighteous. Jesus was welcomed as long as he was a sweet child, but when he became the revolutionary – a peaceful one mind – he was rejected with “isn’t this Joseph’s kid?” and run out of town.

Each child of God we welcome through the sacrament of baptism brings with him or her the full potential of being a faithful disciple. When we welcome this child, when we welcome one another, we don’t just welcome with hugs and prayers – we welcome what this child might say, what he or she might do, what he or she might move us toward. God works in and through each of us and as a child of God, each of us has the potential to continue God’s revolutionary work.

Being the church, the true church, is not a simple task and requires us to be open in ways that are quite painful. Your neighbor next to you may be the sister or brother who brings you a meal when you are ill, he or she may be the one who sits with you at Together on Wednesday, may be the person who teaches your Sunday school class or offers insights in class. This sister may also be the one who makes you uncomfortable because she suggest that we should first give to the church and then to ourselves. This brother in Christ may make you squirm when he asks why he hasn’t seen you in church lately. This child of God may make you question your values and priorities and you may be the child of God who – in love – helps to question others’.

Together as children of God we are called to grow as Christians. Together we are called love one another and confront one another. Together we are called to hear the words of comfort we long for and the words of challenge we need.

I bring you tidings of great joy for all people – to you has been born a Savior and to you has been born brothers and sisters who will help you follow that Savior. This Christmas I pray that we welcome both our Savior and our brothers and sisters in Christ. Amen.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Ringing the Bell!

Two Saturdays ago I participated in Covenant’s bell ringing for the Salvation Army. Between singing carols with other Covenant members (badly on my part), trying to ring some sort of melody with the bells, and greeting people as they walked by, I really got into the Advent spirit. One story in particular I’d like to share.

My fellow bell ringer had stepped aside to help two women with their questions, leaving me to my enthusiastic ringing and (because it’s me) dancing to the carols I was trying to ring out. Several cars slowed down as they drove by me, all drivers smiling and waving.

Several minutes later, after my partner had come back to ringing and we were trying to remember all the words to 12 Days of Christmas, a woman burst out of the mall doors. She came over to me and said “this is all your fault.” My brain raced; who was she? What was my fault? With a smile she put several dollars in the kettle and handed me an item. It was a heart keychain with the words “the pure of heart will see God” engraved on it. Surprised that this woman would be giving me something, I didn’t hear the rest of her words. According to my fellow bell ringer, she said “I haven’t stopped by one of these things in years but on seeing your joy, I just had to.” She left me with another smile as I wondered at her kindness.

I share this not to confirm that being joyous puts people in a giving spirit (though I certainly think it does) but to share this moment in front of the mall when Christ appeared, with almost twenty days until Christmas remaining. In my joy, this woman saw the face of Christ in me. In her generous spirit, in her sharing of herself, and in her affirmation of what I had to give (that joy she recognized), I saw the face of Christ in her.

Christ came as a baby over two thousand years ago and Christ will come again. And – as this woman reminded me – Christ comes in the here and now, in moments like I experienced while ringing bells, in moments of generosity and joy, in so many different ways and places, Christ comes. Rejoice, believers, rejoice!