Prepare!

Preached at Fountain UMC December 2015. (I don’t edit spelling and grammar on the written part of my sermons! Sorry!)


Luke 3:1-6

My youngest son was born on January 5th. (He missed the new millennium by 5 days…) I preached right around his birthday last year and in my research I discovered that January 5th was Christmas Eve for much of church history, and still is in some parts of the church. And I thought that was the coolest thing ever! So, I ran to his room and told him… “You know what? We’re both born on Christmas Eve!” I was born on December 24.

The thing about our family that makes us unique, is that my birthday, on December 24th, is the third birthday we celebrate the week before Christmas. My oldest son was born on the 18th and my husband on the 22nd. It makes for a very long week!

In years, like this year, where we cooked Thanksgiving dinner, it makes for a very long holiday season! Our season begins the weekend before Thanksgiving and ends on the first weekend of January. The weekend before Thanksgiving, we clean the house, from top to bottom. And somehow, we pull it together for the rest of the season and keep the house somewhat clean. We subconsciously put new routines into place…we almost have to with the calendar so full of birthday parties and Christmas celebrations!

It is truly a time of preparation and expectation.

As I vacuum and sweep, and dust…I can almost hear John the Baptist crying out… “Prepare the way of the Lord…”

“Prepare the way of the Lord…” John the Baptist was not the first to utter these words of course, he was quoting the Book of Isaiah. Even Isaiah was probably using a phrase that was commonly used when a King was coming to town.

Just like a presidential visit today, a community would have to prepare for a Kings visit. An advanced messenger would come to announce the royal visitor…and everyone would tidy up their homes and their city and themselves… “Prepare the way of the Lord…”

For hundreds of years the Jewish people had been expecting a Messiah, the one that would deliver them from oppression, that would save them from sin and death. A King was coming, and when it was time, God sent before the Lord an advanced messenger. “Get ready it is time. Get yourselves ready, it’s time.”

For John the Baptist, preparing for the Lord was tied closely to repentance. Stop doing what you are doing, turn from your old ways, and turn to God. Get yourselves cleaned up, do what you are supposed to do, pay attention to the details…prepare, for the King is coming…

We have reduced John the Baptists idea of repenting to a few short steps…I found one list, repent in12 easy steps…it was my favorite list…just because of the first step…Listen to your preacher! But there was another even shorter list…6 steps. Yesterday when me and Alan were wandering around an antique store we ran across a set of videos…transform your life in seven days.

Seven days to transformation. Six steps to preparing for the coming of The King.

I love the first line of The Chronicles of Narnia novel, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it…” Now, I don’t know if he deserved that name, but if any imaginary child did, it would probably be Eustace! He was whiney, and selfish, bossy, and a bully. And he really didn’t like his cousins, Edmund and Lucy. But during a summer visit, the three of them found themselves transported to Narnia, travelling on a Narnian ship…on a small ship where it was hard to avoid each other…Edmund and Lucy were trapped with whiney, bossy, Eustace. Finally, after about a month of sailing, they spotted land!

And when they landed, Eustace decided he didn’t want to have anything to do with the hard work of unloading the ship and setting up camp, so he wandered away. Quickly becoming lost.

Unfortunately, for him, as he tried to find his way back he wandered into a dragon’s valley. And in the magic that is the world of Narnia, he became a dragon. And he didn’t like it very much. And although he did find his way back to his cousins, he couldn’t talk. He could not tell him what hurt, what was bothering him, he could not tell them how scared he was, or how alone he felt, so even when they were around, he was miserable and alone in his selfishness.

But one night, a large moonlit lion, Aslan, the Christ like lion, came and brought Eustace, the dragon, to a pool of water. And he knew, when he saw the water, that it would be healing. But Aslan let him know that he had to remove the dragon first. And Eustace did. He scratched and scratched, pealing his dragon skin right off! Until it was laying on the ground beside him. But as he took a step towards the water, he saw his foot…still very much a dragon’s foot. So, he tried again. Scratching and scratching until his dragon skin was laying on the ground beside him. He took a step towards the water, and again he saw, he was still a dragon. He tried again, but again, no matter how deeply he scratched, he was still a dragon.

Isn’t that how it is with us? We prepare for a King, for THE King, by cleaning our homes, buying new Christmas clothes, setting the table, following six steps to repentance…and when it is all over, we go back to the way it was. Nothing really changed at all.

But there was another text in the lectionary this week. Another text on repentance…Listen to these words from the book of Malachi:

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight–indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

The process of refining silver is long, and detailed, and to be honest, pretty boring to watch. If you watch the process, it looks as if the silver smith isn’t doing anything…

A few years ago, my dad called me to let me know that my grandma had cancer. They were going to do all they could to make her comfortable but she had elected to not fight it. So, over the next eight weeks, we took turns at her bedside. Sitting with her, comforting her, feeding her until she couldn’t eat any more…one night, we knew it was nearing the end, my aunt, my dad, and I were sitting by her beside. As the night wore on, my dad and I fell asleep. But my aunt, she didn’t sleep. She sat there watching my grandmother’s every breath…quiet, still, silent…but there was nothing passive about her presence with her mom that night. At about two in the morning, she whispered into the darkness, that she had taken her last breath, it was done, her pain was no more.

This image of God’s presence in our lives, the silversmith, still but intense and active…It is a powerful image.

The silver smith adds silver to a container that can handle the heat, and then he starts applying heat. For a long time, you can barely tell that anything is happening. The silver smith is just sitting there. Adjusting the heat, just a little, here and there almost imperceptibly. As the silver begins to melt, it starts separating from the impurities. The silver smith actively, even if in his stillness adds heat where it is needed and just at the right moment, so it isn’t too hard to work, he removes the silver from the heat, poring it into a mold…not to fast…not to slow…

It is a beautiful image. God making small adjustments here and there, still…not passive, but with the eternal patience and stillness of God.

But then I realized that we are not the silver smith…but the silver…Ouch.

This is not an easy, cheap image of repentance. This isn’t temporary change; it isn’t simple…it is not pain free. Turning away from the old and towards God…hurts.

Back in Narnia, Eustace could not remove the dragon skin that he found himself living in, no matter how many times he tried. Aslan, finally said… “you will have to let me…”

“I was afraid of his claws,” Eustace said, “But I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. ‘The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. …He peeled the beastly stuff right off-and there it was, lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been…”

This is repentance. The thing is when you discover something that needs to change…really needs to change…in a “you’re the silver. God’s the Silver Smith” kind of way…it will cause you fear…in a clutching your fist, “there is no way I am letting this go” kind of way.

It is in this moment that you begin preparing for The King. Preparing for This King has less to do with getting it done yourself, and more to do with letting God do God’s thing. Hearing His voice calling…whispering to you… “you will have to let me” … “trust me” … “have faith in me” … “you’re just going to have to let me” …

Eustace, finally swimming and splashing in the cool, refreshing, healing water “found that all the pain had gone”…and then he saw why. He’d turned to a boy again. The dragon, and his selfish, bossy, bullying ways…gone.

The silver smith, holding us, shaping us, refining us…Watching so closely that he knows when the silver is fully refined; when the impurities are burned fully away…It is when the silver smith sees his image reflected in the silver, that the silver is finally prepared.

Rise!

We live amongst some of the most beautiful valleys in the world!
I grew up a couple of hours west of here, in Buena Vista, in the Upper Arkansas Valley. I still travel that way on occasion. There is a moment at the very end of the journey…after a few mountain passes, some long flat valley’s, a handful (or two) of tiny towns…almost at the end of the trip, you turn this corner and there it is…God’s creation…all the valley’s beauty laying before the majestic mountains. God’s artwork in full view. I feel God’s presence so clearly; it’s like I can touch the sacredness of the moment.
When I was growing up, we used to get in our ‘48 Jeep Willies and drive into the mountains. We would come to a fork in the road, and my dad would ask “left or right”…right! Left! How about right this time? Once we drove all day, in fact, I remember we were a little worried about running out of gas! And suddenly the road came to a dead end. A very abrupt dead end. The road drove right into a deep canon. The bridge long-gone but we could see where the road used to be on the other side. We got out of the Jeep and walked around taking in the beauty of the place. Not far from the road was a tree stump with flint chips laying all around. Someone sat under this tree hour after hour, chipping away at the smooth glass-like stone…I can almost hear stone colliding with stone…day after day, month after month, year after year…
My grandma lived on the other side of the valley near Salida. On the side of one of the mountains, the property was originally a homestead. 360 acres. If you walked out of her front door and up the hill, at the top you could see the beauty of the valley, it was on that hill that I found my first arrowhead almost like someone had left it there for me to find.
As I think about that arrowhead and the others we found lying around over the years, I realize that I grew up in a valley of dry bones.
Assyria had been a tiny nation for well over a thousand years. It had grown a bit, taken over some of its neighbors, but never much. And something would happen, often factions within Assyria would battle one another, and the country would collapse into a small nation once again. Until about 800 BC. A strong King took the thrown, stop the factions from fighting and focused their energies on taking over the surrounding nations. Well, not taking over…the nations had the choice. They could pay a heavy tax and allow Assyria to put a puppet king on the throne…the Northern Kingdom of Israel decided not to go along with the plan they fought Assyria. And Assyria decimated them as a people, ending 10 of the 12 tribes Moses led out of Egypt. Assyria took those with power and influence away, they sent in their own citizens to resettle the land; they brought in the worship of their own gods…

Assyria eventually fell. Babylon filled the power vacuum left by the fallen Assyria. Ezekiel was a prophet as Babylon came into its power and started pushing towards the remaining tribe of Israel, warning the Southern Kingdom of Judah to change its ways, to turn back to God. Ezekiel begs the people of Judah to remember who they are, whose they are. And when Babylon takes over the Jerusalem, cutting off their food supply, destroying the temple and most of the city, carting off many of the people into exile…ending a way of life, bringing an entire race of people nearly to extension…

It is in this hopelessness that we find Ezekiel’s wild image…this valley of bones.
Last summer I went to Pine Ridge, South Dakota on a mission trip with our youth. They don’t sell alcohol on the Indian Reservation where we were staying and working, but they do, right outside the border. We drove through the small town of White Clay a few times while we were in the area. It is poverty. Buildings barely standing, not an inch clear of graffiti or drawings, Indians…ratty clothes, sitting, sleeping, slouching…people littering the streets. No more hope than the trash that surrounds them as they sleep.

And I hear God ask… “Can these bones live? Can this brokenness be healed? Can this death be resurrected?” …and I answer with Ezekiel, “oh God, only you know.”

On Nov. 29, 1864, more than 600 U.S. Army volunteer soldiers — led by Methodist ordained minister John Chivington — attacked a peaceful camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes near Sand Creek. Nearly 200 women, children and elderly in the camp were killed and many more left wounded. In the summer of 2014 the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, all 600 of us, got on buses and traveled to the Sand Creek Massacre site. We saw the valley where the massacre occurred. We walked in silence as we felt the hot wind on our faces, remembered the tragedy, we could almost hear the cries of the women and children in the silence of the day….

And I hear God ask… “Can these bones live? Can this brokenness be healed? Can this death be resurrected?” …and I answer with Ezekiel, “oh God, only you know.”

You don’t have to travel to Pine Ridge or Sand Creek to see that we are living in a valley of bones. Just turn on the news, even for a few minutes! The brokenness, the death is all around…Orlando, Virginia, Louisiana, Minnesota, Dallas…
And I hear God ask… “Can these bones live? Can this brokenness be healed? Can this death be resurrected?” …and I answer with Ezekiel, “oh God, only you know.”

Then God says to Ezekiel, Ezekiel, speak to these bones. Speak into the death, speak in the brokenness… and there was a great noise, and bone came together with bone, and flesh came upon them…

While we were at Pine Ridge we visited Red Cloud Indian School. Some graduated students gave us a tour of the building and the property. It is a Catholic boarding school started in the 1880’s. From the beginning, Lakota children would leave their homes to learn, reading, writing, math, and how to be white. Today, the children are taught both Catholic values and Lakota language and history. This school has the more Gates scholarships than any other school in the nation. One senior that graduated this year…Marlee Kelly dreamed for years of going to Washington University..and she got accepted. But Marlee decided to expand her reach…just to see. She was accepted to Yale and Harvard. Another student Jacob is going to Brown. Another Bobby got accepted to Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth.
Can you hear the rattling? The shaking? Bone coming together with bone.
Just last month the clergy from the Rocky Mountain Conference gathered together during clergy session and we took a vote. We condemned Chivington and his actions on the day over 150 years ago. We stood together and made it clear as his colleagues we could not stand by his actions…
Can you hear the rattling? The shaking? Bone coming together with bone.
Of course, you can! It doesn’t take much looking to see God at work. To see glimpses of healing, to see God breaking into the world. To hear the rattling of bone against bone.

But that is NOT the promise of this text.

“Come from the four winds, Oh Spirit, breathe upon these slain that they may live.” Ezekiel called upon the spirit of God to bring life to the bones and there was life. The promise is life, abundant life…From death to life. From brokenness to healing. Do you believe that promise? Do you believe the Lakota people will thrive once again? Do you believe that one day the world will know that Black Lives Matter, too? Do you believe that God can do all of that?…because I have to admit, most days I am not really sure.

I have struggled with that a lot as I studied this text this week. I am not sure how to promise you that God can bring life to the brokenness of our world if I don’t believe it myself most days. I see the death, the brokenness, And I hear God ask… “Can these bones live? Can this brokenness be healed? Can this death be resurrected?”

…and I answer with Ezekiel, “oh God, only you know.”

I answer with Ezekiel, “God, only you know.” And I realize, I am in good company, Ezekiel did not know either.

But still, God commanded him to speak, even though he doubted. And Ezekiel spoke. God commands us to speak, even if we doubt. He calls us, as his church to speak life into death we encounter…

There is that moment, returning home, I journey up that final hill, around that final corner, and there it is…God’s creation…all the valley’s beauty laying before the majestic mountains. God’s artwork in full view. I feel God’s presence so clearly, it’s like I can touch the Sacredness of the moment.

And I hear God’s promise, bigger than the brokenness, bigger than death, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live. Tell these bones that God is God. That God is bigger than death. Remind them that God brings life…even from dead bones. God can bring hope even when everything seems hopeless. O hear ye dry bones, God is bigger than your story, bigger than your death, God can bring you up to life.”

It demands that, even in the hardest of moments, that I hope. It requires that I take steps in faith. That I live like God’s promises are true…because if I am not speaking God’s promises into the brokenness I encounter…then what I am I saying. Because I, because we have something to say to death…we are a resurrection people…death is not the end. Death is not the end. Thanks be to God.

We

One of the things we do when we gather in the community of faith every Sunday is to confess our sins. Every week we confess that we are broken and fall short:

Merciful God,
we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have failed to be an obedient church.
We have not done your will,
we have broken your law,
we have rebelled against your love,
we have not loved our neighbors,
and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray.
Free us for joyful obedience,
      through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And every week, many of us sit in the pews knowing we did not do all of these things. Some of these things you didn’t do during the week. Some of them I didn’t do. But it isn’t really about you or me. Our confession not my confession. It is our confession. As a church, as a community, WE have not loved God with our whole heart, we have failed to be an obedient church. We not done God’s will, we have broken God’s law, we have rebelled against the love that God offers, we have not loved our neighbors, or heard the cry of the needy. I may not have done all of those things, but WE most certainly have.

In the same way, WE as a nation need to confess our sins. Neither of us, not you, not me, nor the people we know, picked up a gun and killed 50 breathing, living, beautiful human beings in a nightclub. But WE did. We need to confess our sins as a nation; we need to ask for forgiveness.

Because as long as it is “them,” “those people,”…as long as it is not me, or you, or our family, or our friends, as long as it is not us, nothing we will change. This is our community, our nation, our responsibility.

It is time we claim it as ours.

We, the people of these United States,

We confess that we have not formed a perfect union.
We have failed to establish justice and domestic tranquility
We have not trusted in the abundant freedom we are given,
we have denied the general welfare of our fellow citizens,
we have taken advantage of and abused the blessings of liberty,
we have concerned ourselves with our own prosperity 
and we have not heard the cry of the needy in our midst.
Forgive us, for failing to leave for our children the country and the world they deserve.
Free us to be a country that knows we have failed and give us the strength to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.

You are Blessed

Years ago as I started taking those first few baby steps into Christianity, I felt myself drawn to Judaism, to this deep, deep history. To the people that were Jesus’ people, to the rituals that shaped and formed him, to the stories that formed the culture in which he lived.

My family was friends with a Jewish family. Spending time with them, learning about their faith was powerful for me. I had the opportunity to share a Sabbath meal with them, to worship with them, to learn from them. I am lucky they are really good teachers and I ask a lot of questions: About their faith, their religion, and how it shapes the Jewish people, about what they thought about Christ and Christianity. One day, I asked about Jesus being the Messiah. Their answer was clear, and to the point. Jesus is could not be the Jewish Messiah because he did not bring 1,000 years of peace.

It was with that simple statement that I understood. I understood the disciple’s consistent confusion over who Jesus was, why they argued over who would sit at his right and who at his left; why they reached for the sword when the romans came to arrest him.

They were expecting a warrior king. They believed that God would send them a king, a Messiah from the line of David. The anointed one would overthrow the Roman rule and save them from oppression. He would usher in a time of peace. There was a list of things they expected of the Messiah, and Jesus seemed to have a hard time convincing them that it was not going to go as they had planned.

 

 

The first thing we hear about Simeon, he was righteous and devout. Simeon knew he would get to see the Messiah, the one that would bring restoration to Israel. Simeon was probably keeping his eye out for a warrior King. Instead, God nudged him towards a baby. A little one, probably a little over a month old. And something happened when Simeon took the baby from Mary and held him in his arms.

Have you ever had a moment of clarity? A moment where the world drops away, all distractions vanish, and you see something you have not seen before? Something that had been there the entire time, you just couldn’t see it?

In the touch of the Christ child, Simeon saw for the first time. The Messiah was not a warrior but a baby. And he overflows with joy overflowing and praise, he had hoped for Israel’s salvation but now he says… “I have seen your salvation; I have seen your salvation for all nations.” It was there the whole time. And finally. Simeon saw, and he was at peace.

Salvation not just for Israel but for all. David Watson talks about universal hope in his book, God does not Foreclose. “the appropriate attitude for Christians must be one of universal hope. Although we can in no way predetermine the final outcome of Christ’s saving work, or in any way tell God what to do, we can surely hope that God will manage to bring together the human family in its entirety to celebrate the heavenly feast.

We can find hope in the promise that God desires that every human know that they are beloved children. We should hope that all people would know that there is a table set for all of humanity and that they know they have a place reserved for them, and that they might accept God’s invitation of Love and Grace and take their place and feast at the heavenly banquet.

 

 

Overflowing with joy, seeing how much greater God’s plans were than his, Simeon hands the Christ child back to his parents. But he has something more to say, he looks at them and tells them that “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”

One of you shared a video on your Facebook wall. It’s a video from the boys and girls club, maybe you’ve seen it. A voice off camera asks a child sitting in a room a question. “What are you hoping to get this year for Christmas.” They show a variety of kids giving a variety of answers: Xbox 360, a really big Barbie house, a laptop computer. They want big, extravagant gifts! Then the voice asked them another question: “What do you think your mom or dad would want for Christmas?” And their answers are just as big and extravagant: Jewelry, a flat screen T.V. , a new dress.

And one by one you see their eyes grow huge as their gifts are brought into the room. The gift that they most desired…and the extravagant gift their parents would love.

Then the voice off camera informs them, they have to choose. You can have what you were expecting, or you can give to your loved one. They are being asked to sacrifice what they desire for their loved ones… You can see the struggle on their faces. Their hearts are revealed in this difficult choice.

In his book, The Great Divorce, CS Lewis tells a tale of a bus that brings people from hell to heaven. The bus is available for anyone to board. Most don’t. Those that do find themselves uncomfortable in heaven. For a variety of reasons…because they refuse to be there with people they don’t think belong…because they can’t see beyond their own certainty… because they won’t sacrifice what they hold close… most choose to get back on the bus and return to their sorrow.

The Christ child will grow up to challenge his people, to challenge us to sacrifice. He will tell the rich man to sell everything he has and give to the poor. He will teach abundant, extravagant forgiveness; he will teach that whoever tries to keep their life will lose it.

If we were given the choice these kids were given: If we were given the choice between what we most desire and what God most desires, would we choose the Hope of God’s salvation? If we could see as clearly as Simeon, what would our hearts reveal?

 

 

Simeon was not done yet. He had one more thing to say before disappearing into history…

I was flipping through books as I prepared this sermon. Looking for images and stories that fit, that would draw you in, explain what I am saying a bit better than I could. One of the books I picked up is a book by David Platt. I don’t remember where I got the book, I’ve never read it, but it was on my book shelf, judging by the outlines and notes in that I am not the first owner of this book. As I looked through it, I ran across a really sad story. A women died at the hands of her parents for converting to Christianity. In the margin next to this story is a note, a question: “Then what will God protect us from?”

And I wonder if the person that wrote that note had ever read Simeon’s final words. If they had seen Simeon look at this baby and his mother and heard him tell her, “he will pierce your soul.”

Last week we heard Elizabeth pour down words of praise and blessing upon her. Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you bear!” Mary, the one who sings praises, “from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Mary, “he will pierce your soul.”

Which was it? Was Mary, the mother of the Messiah, blessed or would she suffer?……… Of course we know, being blessed does not mean we will not suffer. It does not mean we will not have to sacrifice.

Simeon walks away. Leaving the family to their future. He leaves, full of joy, for God’s gift was so much more than he thought it would be, and he understood, that it would cause the rising and falling of many, that hearts would be revealed through him, that souls would be pierced

The kids, sitting in front of two gifts had to choose. The video shows each one choosing the gift for their parents. When asked why, child after child tells of the great things their parents give to them. One child said this: “Because Legos don’t matter…your family matters. Not Legos, not toys. Your family. So, it’s either family or Legos and I choose family.”

What a blessing…

Favored – Luke 2:1-20

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Thirty-four years ago Prince Charles gave Princes Diana a beautiful engagement ring. A 12-karat sapphire surrounded by 14 diamonds. When she died in 1997, her son Prince Harry got the ring. Him and his brother, Prince William agreed that whomever married first would get the ring. So, twelve years after his mother’s death, prince William asked his brother for the ring back. He also approached the queen, as required by law, and ask for her blessing on the engagement. When all of that was done, Prince William flew Kate Middleton to Kenya, borrowed a helicopter and flew her to a remote, private spot on a lake nestled at the base of Mount Kenya, and asked her to marry him. As you know, the wedding was spectacular.

To see picture of them together, laughing, smiling, joking…it is a fairy tale romance, fit for a king.
What a very different story we tell tonight. Mary and Joseph…we are not even sure if they were married when Jesus was born. If they were, they’re newly married, traveling, not to a beautiful location like Kenya, but eighty miles to his home town. Their wedding, not even worth mentioning.

What kind of King would be born into this story?

Prince George, the first-born son of Prince William and Kate Middleton, was born in the Lindo Wing of St. Mary’s Hospital. This is a hospital that offers advanced care, state of the art facilities…This prince was born surrounded by a team of doctors, nurses, and midwives. “Special” patients that check into this hospital receive extra care…they stay in an extra-large, comfortable, room…new parents can send their little one to the nursery while they enjoy a full 4 coarse meal created by a private chef…it is an upscale sort of place. No expense was spared at the birth of this future king. The power of this child evident even in his birth story.

It is the story you would expect to hear at the birth of any king.

What a very different story we tell tonight. The birth of a King. Born not in an upscale hospital…this king was born in the left over space…after every bed in town was taken. No room for them in the inn, this king was born in a space fit only for the animals, I can’t image the smell. No comfortable hospital basinet for him, his crib a manger.

What kind of King would be born into this story?

I am thankful that Jesus was born into this story that kings aren’t usually born into. I am thankful that he does not hold before us a picture of perfection, I am thankful that our lives…bumpy, imperfect, real…beautiful are known to our king.

When I was 13 years old, one of the middle school staff walked into my classroom…looked at me, and said, “it’s time.” Being the very snotty 13-year-old I was, (sorry mom!) I looked at her like she was crazy. “Time for what?” It only took me a short breath or two to connect the dots…it’s time. My parents were waiting for me in the car. And we drove the 30 minutes from Buena Vista to the area’s hospital in Salida. Where, after a bit of monitoring, they decided it was not time, and the doctors sent us home.
It was only a few minutes after we got home when my mom walked into my room and said again…it’s time. This time, it really was time! My dad drove as fast as he could, while still being safe (sort of!). I think we only got stuck behind one car on the ride back to Salida…but that car was going extra slow, my dad flashing his lights, using words that I probably should not repeat from the pulpit, until we finally got around it and made our way to the hospital for the second time that day…My mom, the calm one in the whole thing, explained to the E.R. attendants that the wheel chair they brought her, would not work. They would need to bring her a gurney. Just a few minutes after getting her into the ER my baby brother was born. My happy, healthy, baby brother.

It’s not the story of the birth of a king.

He was not surrounded by doctors, we did not have a cozy room, or a personal chef. But it is our story, it is my brothers story…imperfect, bumpy, real…beautiful.

I wonder how often Jesus heard the story of his birth growing up? Did he know about the manger, and the shepherds? As a child did he understand that he was the kind of King that lived the imperfect, bumpy, real…beautiful parts of life?

In 2012 Ward Miles was born three-and-a-half months premature. He weighed less than a-pound-and-a-half, and it was hard to see him through the tubes, and wires, and tape holding it all on. His mom Lyndsey, with the help of a nurse, slowly picked him up for the first time…he was four days old. With the wires tubes and all, she holds him to her chest and then slowly, very slowly, the nurses holding the wires out of her way, sits in the chair behind her. Lyndsey’s husband is taking a video of the moment and she suddenly looks up at the camera and smiles. The smile of a frightened, young mother holding her baby for the very first time. The nurses tuck his little arms and legs under him, cover him with a tiny blanket, and her smile slowly turns to weeping as she leans her face into his tiny body. Pondering all that had happened, the joy of touching her baby’s skin, the relief that comes with finally holding him.

I wonder how often Mary held her child as he grew. How often time stopped and she simply pondered all that he was, all that she had heard about him, all that was promised. As a child did he experience those moments with his mom? Did he know he was the kind of King that was loved so deeply, so fully by his mother, picture perfect life…or not?

On July 22, 2013 there was a simple, formal customary bulletin announcing Prince Georges birth. Of course, there were also a press release, and many 21 gun salutes around the world in Bermuda, the UK, New Zealand, and Canada…Bells in churches rang across the word including the Westminster Abbey, buildings were lit up that evening…in blue to let the world know it was a boy.

A birth announcement heard ‘round the world. An announcement fit for a king.

What a very different story we tell tonight. In a dark field, not far from Bethlehem the skies opened up to angels and their music. The light breaking into the darkness. The birth of this king was not announced to the people in power, or the rulers of that day. The birth of this king was announced to shepherd’s living in a field; to outcasts; to some of the most despised people of their day.

What kind of king would be born into this story?

Carlos Whittaker, a singer and songwriter, along with his sound crew and his video crew, began to film a music video in a park in Atlanta. It was a cold, windy day, but it needed to be done. So, Carlos sat on a chair, picked up his guitar and started singing God of Second Chances. It was not long before a man wandered up to them. A stranger. He looked like he might be homeless, an outcast of our society. This man removes his hat, knees next to Carlos and begins weeping. As Carlos continues singing his song… “You’re the God of all the ages, who are we that you should save us, we’re in awe before you now, and our hearts are bowing down, and our hearts are crying out” As Carlos sings, another voice suddenly enters the song, the voice of the outcast, singing praises to God…one God, one Creator, yes and one father…

It was an imperfect, bumpy, real…beautiful moment. A moment that gives Glory to God. A moment that announces the presence of a king…

What kind of king would be born into this story?

 

 

Sympathy Preaching

“When people look for sympathy, it feels like a no-win situation. On the one hand they are telling us that they have it worse than anyone and no one can understand, but on the other hand they are looking for our validation” (Brene’ Brown, I Thought it was Just Me (But it isn’t), Page 52).

I listened to a sermon recently. The preacher began with the Crucifixion of Christ. She pointed out how “bloody, grotesque, brutal…beyond our imaginations” that scene was. She wanted us to understand the brutality of Good Friday by telling us there was no way we could ever imagine it. Sympathy…”Your telling us that no one can understand, yet you’re asking us to understand” (page 54).

Preacher…what do you want from us? Do you want us to get it? Or is that day, as you say, beyond our imagination?

For the rest of the sermon, that is where I stayed….

On the outside…

Unable to imagine….

Sympathy.

I define empathy as the skill or ability to tap into our own experiences in order to connect with an experience someone is relating to us (page 33).

What if she set the scene at a place we could imagine? The bloody violence we see on the news every night. The fear that haunts us as we drop our kids off at school during those days and weeks after a school shootings… What if she reminded us of the tears that flow and the anger that burns for the nine people gunned down during a church bible study. Brutal. Bloody. Terrifying. A fear, a tragedy, a hopelessness we do understand.

Because we can tap into our experiences and imagine a day like Good Friday. We just need to turn on the T.V., watch the news, look back though our lives at the horror we have experienced…maybe its not exactly the same…but it is closer than “beyond my imagination.”

What if, as preachers, we invite people into empathy in our preaching. Come, see with me. Experience with me. Be uncomfortable with me. Feel fear with me. When we are together, then we can redirect our gaze towards the Love and Grace that God pours into the moment.

Suggested Donation

Suggested Donation….

A few years ago, a week or two before Thanksgiving my husband went to Wal-Mart to buy his lunches for the week. While he was there he purchased a couple of turkeys, and left them with Care and Share as he left. I wasn’t there when he returned to work, but according to him, one of his coworkers response to his act of generosity was “Why in the world would you do something like that?”

I don’t think most people’s response to giving is so…well…ungenerous! But I do believe there is a culture of scarcity that drives people to accumulate more and downplays the importance of giving. When it comes to the church in particular, I hear comments like, “If the church isn’t here to give [to me], then what is it here for?”….”Why in the world would people give money to the church, it doesn’t need their money.”…”I think it’s crazy that people give to the church first, they should give what they have left over at the end of the month.”

And I have to admit, tithing is a very odd behavior indeed! It is directly contradictory to the wider culture of “more, more, more.” It never did make any sense to me why my grandmother went without food for one day every month to give the money she would have spent on food to the church, and that she would give money to the church while she herself was in need, was a continuous source of family tension.

That we give as an act of worship, acknowledging that God has already given us all we need; That we give because it changes our hearts, growing us into generous, giving, grateful people; That we give because we know that what we invest in grows and we want to Kingdom of God to grow…that we give to the church because it is who we are…took me a long time to understand.

So, in a staff meeting we were talking about wording for upcoming fundraisers and Kent suggested that we just say, “Suggested donation $5.” It is for church fundraising, and I believe the people who will read that will get it, in fact because we are talking about fundraising within a church, I am sure that many will give more than suggested, because they want to support this particular church program.  But what about my demographic? The people who didn’t grow up in or around church? Although, I am sure they would give the suggested donation for a product that they are purchasing, isn’t this an opportunity to tell people why we give? So, on the invitations for our event Stories @ The Edge, I put, “We believe what we invest in grows, so we believe in investing in good things. And we believe this is a good thing, so please consider paying for your meal.” It of course is not a huge thing, just reading this isn’t going to make the unchurched tithe, but hopefully, it does start to plant tiny seeds (maybe the size of mustard seeds?) to get people, both churched and unchurched, to think about why we give.