Monday, July 24, 2017

Christmas All Year Round - sermon

Luke 2:1-14

               Last year we celebrated Christmas in July for the first time together.  And I talked to you about how and why this was started.  To refresh your memories: there are several reasons we have this practice.
               For one thing, Christmas in December has become extremely commercialized.  It has become very focused on presents, on decorations, on cards, on parties, cookies, on buying, buying, buying and spending, spending, spending.  In church, our focus on Christmas Eve is on children’s pageants and singing.  As I mentioned last year, these are not bad things: these are very good things.  There should be a place and time when we are about giving gifts, receiving from one another.  There should be a time and place for focus on family, on parties, on decorations. It is wonderful that we have this beautiful celebration with Christmas pageants and candles and music.  I love all of that and wouldn’t change it for the world.
But I’m also aware that in the midst of all of that the real meaning of Christmas gets lost.  Christmas has become a gigantic commercialized and pretty secular event for all of us, and, as I’ve said before, an exercise in those who have too much already giving more to others who also have too much already, rather than a focus on what God’s coming to us as a poor, displaced baby is really about.  And while we love that Jesus came as a baby, because we love babies and we love children, our delight in our clean and pressed children, in our songs beautifully sung and our choirs trained to do their best music, often takes us away from the reality of what that messy, chaotic, noisy, confusing first Christmas was really like.  More, it takes us away, again, from the deeper message of God coming to us, to be with us, as one of us.  God did not come in the form of a king, not in clean clothes and rich surroundings, not in a comfortable home or hospital, not surrounded by extended and loving family bringing new baby clothes and a crib and car seat that are up to code, not with sterilized bottles and diapers; but in a stable, far, far from home, in a messy, poor place, away from family and friends, out in the cold, without doctors or nurses or midwives or attendants of any kind, without women around (and this was considered women’s work at the time), without warm water and clean towels.  God came to us messy into a messy world.  God came to us as a baby, and not, as the song would tell us, a baby that “no crying he makes” but a real baby who hollered and made messes in his diaper, who spit up at times (all babies do) and who probably threw his toys at times and got mad at his siblings as they came along and who wanted more of this and less of that, who undoubtedly disobeyed his mother at times.  A child.  A human who got cuts and bruises and scrapes.  Who knew what it was to have conflicts with other kids and other adults.  A poor child, who did not have riches and special athletics and music lessons and luxuries. 
This is the God who came to us. I think about the Joan Osborne song, “What if God were one of us, just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home.”  For some unfathomable reason, this song was very controversial.  It is unfathomable to me because that is our Christmas story: that God WAS one of us, just like one of us.  And not, again, a rich and clean king, but a real and dirty infant.
It was scandalous.  And I think that if we did not white wash the story, we would find that it is scandalous still.  And that, to me, is the even deeper message of Christmas.  It isn’t that God came, once upon a time, into this messy and dirty and unkind world.  It’s that God still comes, even now, even with the chaos, confusion, anger, distress, extremes, alienation and isolation of today – God still comes into this place, every day, to meet with us.  And that, too, is scandalous.  God is with the poor and the suffering and the hungry.  God is with those experiencing injustice.  God is with those who are hurting.  God is with those who you are angry.  God is with those who’ve been hurt and those who hurt others.  God is with us when we’ve done something awful and when we are lost and searching.  God is with us when we are afraid.  God’s love for us meets us where we are, in this place, in the trenches of war, in the middle of divorce, in an argument with our children.  That is the message of God’s coming to us as one of us.  God’s love does not come to you after you become the one God wants you to be.  God meets you wherever you are as you are, and that love invites us to become the people we were created to be.
After World War II, as people began to care for so many children orphaned by the war, they noticed that, even though the children had three meals a day, they still were restless and anxious and had difficulty sleeping. It seemed the children had great anxiety about whether or not they would have enough food the next day. One relief worker came up with an interesting solution. Each night the nurses placed a single piece of bread in each child's hand. The bread wasn't meant to be eaten; it simply was intended to be held by the children as they went to sleep. Almost immediately, the children's anxieties were calmed, and they were able to sleep.
Jesus coming was meant to be that slice of bread for each of us to hold in our sleep.  Jesus, or God with us, reminds us of a love that is so deep that created and creator are no longer separated, no longer isolated and alienated from one another, that the sun will come up tomorrow and that we will be okay, whether we live or die, we will be okay. 
Christmas, whenever we celebrate it, is an opportunity to be grounded in that experience of God-with-us.  Are any of you familiar with Simon and Garfunkel’s version of Silent Night?  They sing beautifully the Silent Night that we all know, but in the background you hear a faint talking sound that gradually becomes louder and more attention-demanding.  Eventually, you hear the words that are being said and they are the 6 o’clock news broadcasting over the top of Silent Night.  All terrible, tragic, messy, ugly stuff.  Accompanied, throughout by the song Silent Night.  Every time I hear it, it moves me to tears.  These two Jewish men who wrote this song showed unbelievable depth and understanding about what we believe as Christians about a God who meets us where we are in this broken and hurting world.
I think God is profoundly present with us in this world, present as children are, in the here, in the now, in the real.  Amy Grant wrote a piece that we have shared at the last two Longest Night services called “Better than a Hallelujah”.  The words are:
God loves a lullaby and a mother’s tears in the dead of night
Better than a hallelujah sometimes
God loves a drunkard’s cry, a soldier’s plea not to let him die
Better than a hallelujah sometimes

We pour out our miseries, God just hears a melody
Beautiful the mess we are, The honest cries of breaking hearts
are better than a Hallelujah.
              
A woman holding on for life, a dying man giving up the fight
Are better than a hallelujah sometimes
Tears of shame for what’s been done, the silence when the words won’t come
Are better than a hallelujah sometimes

We pour out our miseries, God just hears a melody
Beautiful the mess we are, the honest cries of breaking hearts
are better than a Hallelujah
Better than a church bell ringing,
Better than a choir singing out, singing out

We pour out our miseries, God just hears a melody
Beautify the mess we are, the honest cries of breaking hearts
Are better than a hallelujah.

God is with us in our reality, in the reality of all that we are.  And while God loves our worship and praise and singing and adoration, what God wants more is a real relationship with you.  God wants to hear your pain, hear your hopes, hear your dreams and your fears.  And so God came to be as one of us, to have that kind of close relationship with us that we humans have with one another.  He came as child, as sibling, as friend, as master.  And he loved and walked and cried and raged and laughed and lived so that we might know that we could talk to God as one who understood, as one who understands. 
Sometimes I think we hide from God in the way we celebrate Christmas.  We focus on the joy, we focus on giving and parties and celebration.  Again, all of that is good.  But if the point of Christmas is that God is real, that God comes to us in a real way, as a real human being, then shouldn’t we also strive to be more open, honest and real with that God? But we hide in our rituals of faith even, making them perfect and beautiful and sweet when God’s coming was anything but those things.  I’m reminded of the musical Sound of Music.  Maria is scared of her feelings so she takes off and runs to the convent.  The wise mother superior though gentle says to her, “these walls were not meant to keep out our problems, Maria.”
           Father John Powell, professor at Loyola University in Chicago wrote about his encounter with one of his more rebellious students, Tommy, who was an atheist challenging everything Father
Powell was teaching in this theology class.  At the end of the semester, Tommy approached the Father and cynically asked, “Do you think I’ll ever find God?” to which the Father replied, “No, but I am certain that God will find you.”  A few years later, Tommy was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  He came to the Father and told him that he had been searching and searching for God without luck.  But one day he gave up on looking for God.  Still, he remembered something the professor had told him, “The essential sadness is to go through life without loving.” And he decided he needed to tell those people in his life that he loved them. 
Tommy said, "So, I began with the hardest one, my Dad. He was reading the newspaper when I approached him.
"Dad."
"Yes, what?" he asked without lowering the newspaper.
"Dad, I would like to talk with you."
"Well, talk.”
"I mean. It's really important."
The newspaper came down three slow inches. "What is it?"
"Dad, I love you, I just wanted you to know that." Tom smiled at me and said it with obvious satisfaction, as though he felt a warm and secret joy flowing inside of him.
"The newspaper fluttered to the floor. Then my father did two things I could never remember him ever doing before. He cried and he hugged me. We talked all night, even though he had to go to work the next morning."
“It felt so good to be close to my father, to see his tears, to feel his hug, to hear him say that he loved me."
"It was easier with my mother and little brother. They cried with me, too, and we hugged each other, and started saying real nice things to each other. We shared the things we had been keeping secret for so many years."
"I was only sorry about one thing --- that I had waited so long."
"Here I was, just beginning to open up to all the people I had actually been close to..
"Then, one day I turned around and God was there.
"He didn't come to me when I pleaded with Him. I guess I was like an animal trainer holding out a hoop, 'C'mon, jump through. C'mon, I'll give you three days, three weeks."
Apparently God does things in God’s own way and at God’s own hour.
"But the important thing is that God was there. God found me! You were right. God found me even after I stopped looking for God."
God is not a private possession, a problem solver, or an instant consolation in time of need, but rather by opening to love..
           
            Jesus was unexpected and my experience throughout scripture and personally is that every time God shows up it is in some unexpected way.
But, as Richard Rohr puts it, “there is no authentic God experience that does not situate you in the world in a very different way. After an encounter with True Presence you see things quite differently, and it gives you freedom from your usual loyalties and low-level payoffs--the system that gave you your security, your status, your economics, and your very identity. Your screen of life expands exponentially. This transformation has costly consequences. Moses had to leave Pharaoh's palace to ask new questions and become the liberator of his people.” 
Pastor Jeremiah Steepek transformed himself into a homeless person and went to the 10,000 member church that he was to be introduced as the head pastor at that morning. He walked around his soon to be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service, only 3 people out of the 7-10,000 people said hello to him. He asked people for change to buy food - NO ONE in the church gave him change. He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit in the back. He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him.
 As he sat in the back of the church, he listened to the church announcements and such. When all that was done, the elders went up and were excited to introduce the new pastor of the church to the congregation. "We would like to introduce to you Pastor Jeremiah Steepek." The congregation looked around clapping with joy and anticipation. The homeless man sitting in the back stood up and started walking down the aisle. The clapping stopped with ALL eyes on him. He walked up the altar and took the microphone from the elders (who were in on this) and paused for a moment then he recited,
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
'The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
After he recited this, he looked towards the congregation and told them all what he had experienced that morning. Many began to cry and many heads were bowed in shame. He then said, "Today I see a gathering of people, not a church of Jesus Christ. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples. When will YOU decide to become disciples?"
 He then dismissed service until next week.
The realization of God being with us, and especially of God choosing to be with us as a poor person, as a displaced person, as one of the “least of these” should transform us, should make us willing and able to take risks to stand up for those who are oppressed or poor or treated unjustly. 

Christmas is a time of blessings and celebration that God is with us.  It is also a call to be with those we usually don’t see and often dismiss.  It is a challenge for us all.  But in those people we would dismiss, we will find God-self.  Amen.