Wednesday, December 21, 2011

December 18, 2011 - A Perfect Christmas? Matthew 2:19-23

There is a Christmas commercial that has run every year for a number of years. It is a classic in Christmas advertising. It’s an ad for Folgers coffee, and the brilliance of the ad is that it really has nothing to do with coffee and everything to do with crafting an image of Christmas. The problem is, the image it creates has nothing to do with reality at Christmas.

The ad begins with a taxi pulling up in front of a beautifully decorated home on Christmas morning. Out steps a young man carrying an armload of presents. He walks up to the door, turns the knob and it opens! What world is he living in? Who leaves their front door unlocked? Why not just put a sign out front that says come in and steal our stuff!

Then the camera shows him stepping into the front hallway of the house. Everything is perfect. All the decorations are in place as though Martha Stewart lived there. Is that your house? It’s not our house. We don’t have an angel on top of our tree – we have Yoda from Star Wars, brandishing his light saber.

To make matters worse, those two kittens we took home a few months ago are destroying everything. They climb the tree, bending down the branches, knock the ornaments onto the floor, and pull at the lights. Every year Nick lays out a Christmas village on a table, and one of the kittens keeps climbing up and chewing the people he puts in the village. It’s like an episode of Godzilla, as she stomps between the buildings snatching victims away and trying to eat them.

After stepping into the house the young man reaches to the wall, flips a light switch and all the lights in the house light up. The lights coming down the banister, the tree lights, lights on the mantle, lights along the windows – lights illuminate everywhere. Is that reality? One switch? At our house you have to connect fifty extension cords before any Christmas lights come on, and then the breaker box in the garage explodes completely out of the wall.

Then he goes into the kitchen and turns on the coffee pot. That’s when you finally see the Folgers can. The aroma of the coffee causes his family, who are upstairs in bed, to stir. They sniff the air and smile. Really? That’s when you call 911! Hello. Someone has broken into my house, and I think they’re downstairs in the kitchen making coffee!

Instead of coming down the stairs with a baseball bat, his parents and sister come bounding joyously down the stairs – all in perfect makeup, of course, and no one has bed hair. The image is perfectly formed, and as his mother turns the corner and sees him she says Peter! You’re home! And then I cry. Because of a coffee commercial.

Actually, it’s not because of a coffee commercial, but the image that is created. That’s the kind of Christmas we all want – a perfect Christmas. We want a Christmas where our family is gathered together, where everything works, where everyone is happy, where there is a beautiful home filled with plenty of presents and plenty of food.

But what is the reality of Christmas? It’s certainly not perfection, is it? Christmas in the real world is far from perfect. Christmas in the real world is a time of running around like some kind of maniac trying to get everywhere you need to go. Christmas in the real world is too little time and too little money. Christmas in the real world is one of stress and anxiety as many worry about not just paying for presents, but putting food on the table. Christmas in the real world is one of anxiety for many because health difficulties cause them to wonder if they will see next Christmas. Christmas in the real world is one of sadness for many because of empty seats at Christmas dinners, the result of loss or of broken relationships.

Our Scripture reading this morning tells us of the return of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus from Egypt. They fled to Egypt because of Herod’s murderous decree after the birth of Jesus. Herod was now gone, but one of his sons ruled in his place, so it was still not safe for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to return to Bethlehem. Instead, they traveled to Nazareth, in Galilee, the northern region of Israel, which was ruled by another of Herod’s sons. And Matthew closes this section of Scripture by writing and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”

It wasn’t the plan Mary and Joseph had in mind, it wasn’t how they would have designed life to go, it wasn’t perfect in their minds, but somehow, God fashioned it into a greater plan.

Life seldom goes according to plan. Life seldom works out in the manner we desire – life is never perfect – but God can fashion a plan out of the difficulties we experience and can even turn those difficulties into something beautiful.

This sanctuary looks beautiful for Advent, doesn’t it? Let me tell you about getting it this way. You can’t imagine what a time we had trying to get these trees together. I lost count of how many times we took them apart and put them back together, trying to get them to look the same. We thought they were supposed to be the same, but there was no way that was going to happen. The one on the left came out okay, but the one on my right looks as though its missing a section and has another tree smashed on top of it, so I’m still not sure that we got them right.

And if you were here last night or Friday night for the cantata you saw a beautiful program. You should have been here on Tuesday evening. You always think it always comes together, but this may be the one time that it doesn’t. But it did, thanks to David’s great direction and talent.

But it’s okay when things seem to be falling apart. It’s okay because we need a reminder that in church – especially at church – we cannot forget that life is far from perfect. Sometimes, in church, we fall prey to the temptation of creating the illusion that everything if perfect. We can gloss over our failures and shortcomings in the hopes that we appear as though our lives are perfectly put together, when the reality is far from perfect.

If you fret about your family and your struggles this Christmas, know that the families in Scripture are far from perfect. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. Jacob cheated his brother out of his inheritance. David – well, David’s family was an absolute mess. If you’ve had a tough year, think about Job. Job lost everything, but in spite of all he lost, he held fast to his faith and knew that God remained with him. If you’re worried about your past and wonder how God could use you, think about Zaccheus, who was so unpopular because of cheating people out of their money that people crowded him out of the view of Jesus as Jesus walked through town. If you struggle with doubt and are overwhelmed with questions about God, think about Thomas, who couldn’t believe that Jesus had risen. Maybe you wish your would like for your house to look perfectly decorated for Christmas, but you’re more worried because you don’t know who much longer the roof is going to last, think about Joseph and Mary, finding shelter in a stable, and placing Jesus in a manger – a feeding trough.

The good news that comes at Christmas is that God’s gifts of love and grace come into our imperfect lives and imperfect world and create something beautiful.

The perfect Christmas is not one where every decoration is in place, where all the lights work, where the table is set for a perfectly-cooked meal, and where the tree is surrounded by presents. The perfect Christmas took place once – in that stable and in that manger, and that Christmas is where we find hope, and love.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Saying Yes to God - December 11, 2011

My grandmother, on my mom’s side, was born on Christmas day. She was named Mary Christina, in honor of being born on Christmas. My siblings and I called her “Little Grandma.” We called my dad’s mom “Big Grandma.” Both of them were about the same size – about five feet tall, so I have no idea how we came up with “Big Grandma” and “Little Grandma.”

Though she was a small woman, “Little Grandma” commanded respect just through her sense of presence. My uncles were tough guys. They were big, tall guys, and when they were growing up no one messed with them. They lived in a tough neighborhood and they were about the toughest in their part of town. But I can remember being impressed at how those big, strong men snapped to attention when “Little Grandma” spoke to them.

“Little Grandma” was actually my mom’s aunt. I told the story in greater detail on Mother’s Day of 2010, but the heart of the story is that she traveled by train to an orphanage in Wheeling, West Virginia shortly after my mom was born. My mom’s mother died the day after giving birth, and a short time later her father left my mom and her siblings at the orphanage. “Little Grandma” was already a widow struggling to raise eight children on her own. Why would someone who was already struggling to raise eight children, on her own, take in another child? My mom needed someone to raise her, and so “Little Grandma” said yes.

I like to think of my grandmother as one who said yes. There was a need, and though it must have seemed like an overwhelming need to someone in her circumstance, she said yes to this little baby.

This morning, as we continue our journey through Advent, I want to talk about another woman who said yes – Mary, the mother of Jesus. Luke’s gospel tells her story, the story of her saying yes to God. Our Scripture passage for today tells of Mary’s joyous affirmation – her yes – to God. Hear her words in Luke 1:46-55.

That is a beautiful passage of Scripture, but its beauty masks the difficulties that came with Mary saying yes to God.

Mary was about to have her life radically changed. The arrival of a child, though exciting, is never the easiest of moments. The arrival of a child means your life is never the same as you suddenly have the responsibility of caring for this tiny, fragile life. I had this illusion that things were going to be relatively simple when we had children. How much disruption could a tiny little baby cause, after all? You bring them home, you fix them a sandwich and that’s it, right? If only it were that simple. When a child arrives, everything changes so much you feel your life has been turned upside down.

For Mary, that challenge was much, much greater than what the typical parent faces. After the birth of Jesus, when Joseph and Mary travel to the Temple to dedicate him, Simeon tells Mary a sword will pierce your soul (Luke 2:35). That’s not a very cheery thought to tell a new mother, is it? You’re supposed to say something like your child might grow up to be king. But Simeon, in a prophetic moment, gives Mary a glimpse of the future, alluding to the pain Mary would face because of what would happen to Jesus.

The first stab of that pain would come quickly, because of the threat of Herod. Joseph and Mary had to flee to Egypt because of Herod’s murderous rampage, putting to death all the male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem. In a life and death situation Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had to leave their home, their family, and all that was familiar in order to find safety. They become refugees, exiles, living in another land. That’s not how life is supposed to begin.

Life is not easy for many children. There are children, every day, born into incredibly difficult circumstances. My grandmother had to provide protection for my mom. My mom’s father was not a good man. He was an alcoholic who was violent and abusive and my grandmother had to be sure he would not try to enter back into my mom’s life. My mom had no knowledge of her father until she was a teenager, and then she had to learn the truth of the kind of person he was. That’s not how life should be – a child should not have to be protected from her own father, but such are the circumstances for too many children.

Saying yes to God means life is going to be different. It’s going to be different because God calls his people to take up for the powerless, for those who need protection from people like Herod, and from people like my grandfather.

But it’s also a reminder of a powerful truth – the world is going to be different because Jesus came to put things right in the world. That’s the good news – that Jesus came to put things right. The bad news is that not everyone wants things to be right. Some people benefit from things not being right.

When you put things right, there is going to be resistance. Mary says, in her response, he has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble (verse 52). That’s a beautiful sentiment, the idea of lifting up the humble. It would be nice message on a Christmas card. But think of the reality of that message – he has brought down rulers from their thrones. Removing rulers from their thrones is not a simple matter. They don’t usually say okay, I’m done. It’s all your now. My best to you. Here’s the keys to my kingdom; let me know if I can be of any help. Herod had power and he was so threatened at the thought of one who would usurp that power that he did not hesitate to take the lives of children. What kind of person would do such a thing? People like Herod, who will do anything to protect their power. The scribes and Pharisees would not receive Jesus well either. He was a threat to their power and so they resisted him and they criticized him and, eventually, some of them got together and plotted how they might put Jesus to death. As much as some people will do anything for money, people are willing to take even more dramatic steps to either get, or keep, power. Jesus was a threat to many who held the power in his day, and they were not interested in giving up that power.

Then Mary says he has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty (verse 53). That’s pretty good news if you’re poor, but not very good news if you are rich.

There were not many rich people in the time of Jesus. Most people lived a hand-to-mouth existence. It’s a grinding-down way to live, being in poverty. It’s a tough, tough life.

As you might imagine, my grandmother, raising nine children on her own, did not have much money. Her husband was a policeman, and after his death she lived on the small pension she received. I don’t know how much it was, but I know it wasn’t adequate to raise a family of that size. My mom grew up poor. I remember when I was younger my mom would tell some of those we were so poor stories. I didn’t know at times if she was joking or telling the truth about some of them. She would say they were so poor they could only afford one bowl of milk for their cereal, so the oldest would get it first, put her cereal in it, then pass on what was left. On it would go until it finally arrived at my mom, with very little left. That story was a joke. I think.

More and more, we see people slipping into poverty. It takes a lot of money to live these days. Housing, food, energy, health care, transportation – there is so much expense in raising a family, and many people are simply not keeping up with the costs.

One of the founding ideals of our society is that of compassion. It is a compassion rooted firmly in the gospel. Compassion is part of who we are as a people, and that compassion is a compelling force that continually calls out to us to never forget the poor and to be advocates for the poor. But more and more it seems that our age is beginning to reverse the words of Mary, to where we might say that the rich are filled with good things while the poor are sent away empty.

Every year at Advent we read about the so-called war on Christmas. If there is a war on Christmas it has nothing to do with how we are greeted when we walk into a store. Personally, I don’t care if someone says happy holidays or Merry Christmas to me when I enter a store. To tell the truth, I prefer that Jesus be left out of the commerce of Christmas.

If there is a war on Christmas it comes when we forget that Jesus was born into poverty and calls us to be compassionate and generous to the poor. Demonstrating compassion to the poor is such a strong component of the gospel that in Matthew 25 Jesus portrays the final judgment as a time when everything rests upon how we deal with the least of these (Matthew 25:31-46).

Next weekend we will deliver 125 food baskets and 70 Angel Tree bags. What a great thing it is to give away! What a blessing it is to be able to give to others!

Mary said yes to God. May we say yes to God as well. May we say yes to be instruments of the love and peace of Christ. May we say yes to be people of compassion and generosity. May we say yes to be people who will comfort the bereaved and befriend the lonely. May we say yes to God, this day, and every day.

May we pray.