Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sermon - Christmas Day

Christmas Day
December 25, 2016                                                                                      

                                                             Finding it difficult to believe

There is something wonderful about having adult children.  I got to get out of bed this morning when I was ready.  When they did get out of bed, there was complete understanding that any and all family activities needed to keep in mind the appointed hour for worship – and my sermon preparation.  There are many things wonderful about having adult children.

But one of the things you miss is the opportunity to explore outlandish claims as reality.  Young children, with their naiveté and constant willingness to be amazed allow us all to participate in exploring the boundaries for believing things which rational persons would readily label as impossible.

None of the homes in which our children remember living had a fireplace.  But we still found a place to hang our “stockings with care, in hopes that St. Nick soon would be there.” 

One of the social media chains I found enjoyable last night were LCM Alums asking one another which of the “Rain deer tracking apps” had the best sound effects.

What I miss has nothing to do with a dark desire to mislead children, what I miss is the excuse to admit that Christmas Day is nothing, if it doesn’t include breaking the boundaries of believing things which rational persons would readily label as impossible.

The presence of small children allows us to make outlandish claims and never bat an eyelash.  That is why Christmas is just not the same if you don’t have small children around.  Who else is going to believe this impossible story?  Christmas Day is nothing, if it doesn’t include breaking the boundaries of believing things which rational persons would readily label as impossible.

Okay – let’s admit it – there are a lot of things about this story which make it a bit “outlandish”. 

I promise this is a safe space – do I have your permission to risk exploring those parts of the story which we tell this morning as outrageous violations of reasonable thought?

1 – The virgin birth.  Our questions about this have less to do with our high school biology lessons than the absence of a course in the development of Roman mythology.  The earliest of the Christian writers don’t include a virgin birth – Mark, Paul.  As we move forward in history, still before the birth of microscopes, the virgin birth is a way to speak of innocence and the arrival of one so unlike anyone ever before birthed.  There is no biological explanation suitable to explain the person who Jesus emerges to be.

2 – Wisemen from the East.  Okay – you follow a star, I get that.  But when I look at the stars I don’t see them pointing to a particular place on the map.   And that line about the star coming to rest over the place where Jesus was born – a star would have to be continually moving to remain over one spot on the earth, because of the earth’s continual rotation.  Again, astronomy isn’t what we need to learn.  The outlandish claim which the star allows us to make is that the birth of Jesus has implications for every person regardless of their interest in the religious convictions which arise from Jerusalem.

3 – Angels singing to shepherds.  You have to start with the angels themselves.  As a fan of country music, I hear more than my share of references to guardian angels and instances where “Jesus takes the wheel,” but when was the last time someone with a straight face told you they had seen an angel floating in sky and singing a song?  You will tell me – of course it doesn’t happen every day.  The reason we observe this day – Christmas Day – is because it happened in this instance. 

I could go on.  But I imagine you have other activities scheduled for this morning so I will stop there – assuming that I have sufficient by-in to my assertion that Christmas is all about probing the boundaries between what is believable and seem to many an idle tale.

Having small children around allows us to repeat these claims, as if speaking to them, and thus providing the chance for us to believe these things, too.

I long for the presence of an innocence which allows us to believe what any rational person would quickly label as ridiculous and impossible.

(This is corner which this sermon either turns or falls flat on its face.) 

That for which I truly long, is innocence which allows me to believe the future ramifications of the outlandish story first told in Bethlehem.  In so many ways it is much easier to believe in flying reindeer than it is to believe that peace on earth can truly come.

That for which I truly long, is innocence which allows me to believe the future ramifications of the outlandish story first told in Bethlehem.  In so many ways it is much easier to believe in a virgin birth than it is to believe that non-violence and non-resistance will overcome hatred and selfish ambition.

That for which I truly long, is innocence which allows me to believe the future ramifications of the outlandish story first told in Bethlehem.  In so many ways it is much easier to believe in virgins having children than it is to believe that every innkeeper or homeowner will open their hearts and doors so that no one has to sleep in the cold or wet of a winter night.

We waste our time attempting to tell our children stories which amaze and surprise them if all we tell them is gifts of gold and frankincense and muir making their way to a little baby lying in a manger.  Take the risk of telling them that the birth of Jesus means everything about life has changed – and the birth of Jesus means that we are changed and that is why our lives might not look like the lives lived by others.  The little bitty pokes at reality and rational thought invite us into a Norman Rockwell painting.  But the significant outlandish claims made on this day confront us with a whole new view of the world and our life in it.

Oh how I miss having small children in my home on Christmas Day. 


Thursday, December 8, 2016

Devotion - Thursday, December 8

Advent is a time to look to that which is to come.  Advent is an opportunity to anticipate an ending which we may never see in our lifetime.  Advent is a time to speak of things so grand and great that others around us might find it difficult to comprehend our words.

Advent should be a snap for those of us in campus ministry.  We begin a season of preparation, which never reaches its end.  Amid exams and final projects, we have been talking about Christmas, but we won't be together to see the arrival of Christmas.  Each fall we go through this time of preparation and each January we return to report all the great things which have happened - sometimes the stories are difficult to comprehend.

A similar set of events will happen in the houses which were your childhood homes.  A series of preparations have been going on there - without your participation.  When you get home, you will be informed of what is going to happen and when.  There is a tremendous amount of comfort in just being along for the ride, but doing so doesn't make you a full participant.

Preparing and bringing to a conclusion are integral parts of every experience.  Those of us in campus ministry know the shortcomings of only being involved in one and not both.  

I encourage you, over the remaining 29 days to integrate your preparation  with your experience.  Make sure the two are linked - even though they must happen in two very distinct  communities.

I pray for a continued blessed advent, and I wish you a joy-filled Christmas.  I will be back with you come January 11.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Devotion - Wednesday, December 7

The story in which we learn of God's call to Isaiah is in the 6th chapter.  This is the story from which we get the popular camp song, "Here I am Lord....."  Isaiah has a vision in which he is in the Temple and he sees God.  The vision of God is so overwhelming that when the request comes, "Whom shall I send?" Isaiah steps forward.

We are too inclined to depend upon our thinking process when it comes to our faith.  Where is the heart?   And what effect does all that we see have upon us?

One of the things I have seen this week which encourages me to respond favorably to God's invitation is the support you offer one another during these stressful times.  It is a wonder like that seen by Isaiah - to observe the jokes and laughter which take the edge off exams and final projects.  It is called community; and it is a lovely thing to see.  It leads one to strive for a similar opportunity in the lives of others.

I am a very cognitive person.  I think a lot about faith and the convictions of Christian faith.  But what I see, those things which move my heart, these are the things which lie behind my willingness to step forward which God is in need of a messenger.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, December 6

I feel compelled to write of St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra on this his Feast Day.

Bishop Nicholas lived in the 4th century.  Myra is an ancient city in what is modern day Turkey.  He was known for his acts of kindness, particularly his giving of gifts, by night.  

One tradition has him slipping money to a poor family in order that the daughters would have a diary, thus avoiding a life of forced servant hood.  

If he wanted to leave coins for someone and wanted to make sure they would be somewhat hidden from others he would place them in the shoes of the intended recipient.  Socks and stockings are a luxury seldom enjoyed by those in the greatest need.

Remember that a Bishop's clothing included a red cape.  The instances in which persons actually saw Bishop Nicholas giving gifts were mostly reports of seeing the back side of such a red outfit.

I encourage you to become familiar with the story of St. Nicholas.  Go to wiki and read how this Saint of the ancient church morphed into a lesser version so widely heralded in our culture.  

Monday, December 5, 2016

Devotion - Monday, December 5

The text for today is Luke 21:20-28.  This is one of the apocalyptic chapters in the Gospel.  Apocalyptic literature speaks of the end of times.  It addresses the final consummation.  The Book of Revelation is perhaps the best known of this type of literature.

In Luke 21, Jesus is speaking of seeing armies surrounding Jerusalem.  He says "great distress shall be upon the earth and wrath upon this people."  

It is most common, in our contemporary culture, to see this type of literature as "bad news."  We hope to avoid the days of which apocalyptic literature speak.  But the 28th verse would have us understand things differently.  Jesus ends this section by saying, "look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

Apocalyptic literature exposes where we have placed our trust.  If we have come to rely on our own systems and securities, then we will fear the things of which it speaks.  Those who seek God and God's final hope for the world are inclined to see in the endings the arrival of our redemption.

During these days of Advent, we joyfully anticipate the arrival of Messiah.  But let's not forget that the Messiah whom we adore brings a message which challenges so much of what we have come to accept as business as usual.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Sermon - Advent 2, Year A

Matthew 3:1-12    


The story of John the Baptist figures very heavily in the story of Jesus’ birth.  It is impossible to get through the Christmas story without mentioning this fiery country preacher.  In the four short weeks of Advent (the season in which we prepare for the birth of Jesus) two Sundays are given over to John.  This week we hear a short section of his preaching; next week we will learn of his attempts to determine whether or not Jesus is truly the Messiah.

John is very important in the story of Jesus’ birth.  He is the messenger who comes before Jesus in order to prepare his way.  He is the herald who announces that the Son of Man is coming.  He is the first act of the one-two punch which stirs the Judean countryside and causes alarm among the civil authorities.

And yet, there is something very different about the message of John and the message of Jesus.  They are interrelated, but they are not the same.  Jesus came to remove our sins.  John’s role was to make us aware of just how sinful we can be.

I want to be very careful, from the outset, to point out the reason for discussing this difference between John and Jesus.  It is important to note the difference so that we can dispel the false notions which would have us believe that confessing our sin is all that is necessary.  Too often, in our good southern churches, we have heard a continuation of the preaching of John the Baptist.  What we Christians ought to be hearing is the message of Jesus. 

John convicts us of our sin; Jesus – by his death and resurrection -  proclaims our forgiveness. 

When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, the message he proclaimed was a call to repentance. 

The scriptures contain very little of his actual sermons, what we get are a smattering of phrases and comments.  But these are enough for us to realize that John's message was not a pleasant one.  He came with a word of warning, a word of judgment, a call to account­ability.  John, through his preaching, delivered a message, a notice, that Jerusalem and all of Judea must acknowl­edge their sin and returned to God.

The word that is used by John is "repent."  The baptism he offers is a “baptism of repentance”.  To repent is to turn around.  It is to go in the opposite direction from the direction our current course would take us.  To repent is to identify where were are doing wrong and from this point forward to do the right thing.  To repent is to make the changes in our lives which align us with God’s hope for our lives and the world.  To repent is to turn around and prepare ourselves for the in-breaking of Messiah.

I want to be careful, not to repeat what I referred to earlier as the theme most often preached in our good southern churches.  Repenting does not make us right with God and thus assure where we will spend eternity.  Repenting does not complete our quest for salvation.  But we also need to be careful, not to so forcefully separate the messages of John and Jesus that we ignore John’s call to prepare.

John figures heavily into our Advent readings and our Advent preparations.  John is not Messiah.  The Messiah will come after John is finished.   The work of John is to prepare the way.

So, let’s return to this concept of repentance; of turning our lives around.  For john, this is a confession.  But it is also a change in behavior which produces visible changes.  Twice in today’s passage Matthew quotes John saying that we ought to “bear good fruits.”  Once they are called “fruits worthy of repentance.”   

What are these fruits worthy of repentance and are they evident in our lives?

I do not want to make you squirm in your seats – well, not squirm too much.  But it would be a disservice to the appointed Gospel lesson to fail to ask whether we have fully embraced the scripture’s message.  Have you heeded the call to repentance?  Martin Luther’s insistence that we remember our baptism each morning as we wash our face is surely a call to also look each morning at the invitation to repentance.

Let’s approach it from a more tangible side – where is there an absence of good fruits in your life?  Maybe a complete and total turning around is too much to ask or hope for.  But what one thing might you change which would make your life one in which fruits were found.

Maybe you need to stop saying bad things about USC.

Perhaps you need to repent of the way you have found to cheat (just a little bit) on your income taxes.

Is there opportunity and reason to repent of the way you speak of the stranger and sojourner? 

Maybe repentance is needed in the way you use the resources at your disposal?  (Yes, I am talking about whether you live up to the biblical standard of giving a tenth of your income.)

In my own return to repentance, I find myself greatly challenged when it comes to “interpreting my neighbor’s action in the kindest of ways.”  I am so quick to find fault and to blame and to speak ill of them and never even attempt to talk to them so as to understand their perspective.

Where is repentance needed in your life?  How might you live a life in which there is a greater abundance of good fruits.  REMEMBER:  this is not the whole of the story; John’s call to repentance is a preparation for the arrival of Jesus.  But as preparations go, it pretty darn good.

In the first draft of this sermon, I actually had you turn to someone next to you and identify the one thing of which you need to repent.  There is a part of me that would still like to do that.  But I won’t.  Here is what I would challenge you to do – make a covenant with someone to spend ten minutes (just ten minutes) talking about the call of John and how it speaks to your life.  Discover with them where repentance is needed and what you can do to bear fruits worthy of repentance.

I know that this will be extremely difficult.  But I also know such self-reflection will lead to the ability to give your family, your friends, and your neighbors a Christmas gift beyond comparison. 

The kingdom of heaven has come near.  Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  


Thursday, December 1, 2016

Devotion - Thursday, December 1

The Clemson community had a guest yesterday.  Eboo Patel was here, to share his thoughts on how the world might become a bit better than it was the day before.  Eboo (he prefers folks refer to him casually, and by his first name) is the founder of the Interfaith Youth Coalition (IFYC).  This is a growing group of like-minded students (and student workers) who realize that faith (as an expression of "ultimate concern") must be integrated into our interactions with others.  Rather than setting faith questions aside when we speak with the "other", we must make such conversations central to our coming to see the "other" as a sister or brother.

Within every religious tradition, there are those who claim exclusivity.  There are those who insist that their theological framework excludes those who do not share a confession of faith.

Thankfully, within every religious tradition, there are also those who assert that the exact opposite is true.  Eboo reminded us yesterday of the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The "Samaritan" is a follower of a differing religious tradition.  Those in the room when Jesus first told the story would be inclined to think of the Samaritan as the "other."  But that story lifts him as the example of how we are to live our lives.

Your faith in Jesus Christ must be something more than a punch card for heaven.  Your faith in Jesus Christ must align you with that which ultimately concerned Jesus.  Yes, he does preach about heaven and eternal life.  Let's not forget that he also preached a lot about loving the neighbor, caring for the one in need, and about self-sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom.

I hope we will all be reunited in heaven.  But I pray for unity now in our tireless commitment to teaching what Jesus taught and to living as Jesus lived.