Friday, January 29, 2016

One Message, Many Voices

Luke 4: 14-21
Inaugural Addresses
 “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”  March 4, 1865   President Abraham Lincoln.  Second Inaugural Address

“We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”  January 20, 1961  President John F. Kennedy

“In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”  January 20, 2009  President Barack Obama. First Inaugural Address.

Three Presidents.  All with conviction for the good of the common weal for justice and peace, freedom and hope rooted deeply in God’s grace.  Through Civil War, civil rights, terrorism, environmental concerns and health care these men worked for the betterment of the human condition and equality for all people in the United States and in the world. 

But they did not accomplish what they did without a vision.  And we, as citizens of the United States, heard their vision in their Inaugural Addresses at the beginning of their administrations. We approved with applause after each point of proclamation and at the end we approved with sustained applause.  And soon we will have another president.  And hopefully we will be offered a vision of justice, fairness, and equality for all people who live in this great United States.

Passage Exegesis
When Jesus got up to read on one Sabbath morning some liken it to Jesus giving his inaugural address before his ministry actually began as we will see in the Gospel of Luke.  Perhaps so.  Inspired by the Spirit of the Lord he sets out his course and purpose for the people of Galilee as was illustrated in the Book of Isaiah.  And he did it with the conviction that he was the Messiah who was to usher in this age of peace and equality.  Let us hear this account now from the Gospel of Luke the fourth chapter.

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.

Jesus had been out in the dry and parched wilderness for a while.  Lead by the Spirit, tempted by the devil with food, power and greatness and then after denying the devil he returns to Galilee, his very own region of lush grasses, sunflowers, and pomegranate trees.  The Spirit was still with him and he taught in Jewish meeting places all over the region because word of him, this charismatic preacher, had spread.

Then, he returns to Nazareth, his home where his friends and family still made their living and their homes.  It was the Sabbath and Jesus faithfully goes to his childhood synagogue to worship.  It was the custom, and still is, to have readers throughout the service stand up and read Torah and from the books of the prophets.  The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to Jesus.  He carefully unrolled the parchment and found where he wanted to read.  “The Spirit…has anointed me to bring good news to the poor….proclaim release to the captives….and recovery of sight to the blind….to let the oppressed go free…and to proclaim a jubilee year, the year of the Lord’s favor. 

Then, just as carefully as he unrolled the parchment scroll he rolls it up again and gives it to the attendant who covered it and placed back in the ark.  Jesus sits down.  No one took their eyes off of him because now comes the sermon. And it was a short one. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”   At first we are lead to believe that the people were thrilled to hear that news because life in during the Roman occupation of first century Palestine stank.  But we know that Jesus will be forced out of Nazareth; it’s a matter of life and death. 

Jesus’ Inaugural Address
As inaugural addresses go, Jesus’ address is short and sweet but it packed a major wallop!  If he weren’t in the synagogue I’m sure there would have been applause in between each proclamation that he reiterated from the prophet Isaiah.  His major points were (I feel like one of those commentators):

1)  He is divinely sanctioned being filled and anointed by the Spirit of the Lord.  In other words, he’s qualified to preach by the highest authority; 

2)  His preaching is specifically aimed at poor, impoverished people, because we know that the poor people are the forgotten ones or the ones who are discriminated against.  It’s not that poor people need Jesus more, because we all need Jesus, they need hope because they have less resources;  

3)  He will proclaim liberty to every person who sits in bondage, who for some reason, whatever reason is held in captivity and cannot free themselves.  Emancipation from the shackles of our inhumanity to one another or independence from our own prisons that we have placed ourselves in is what he states publicly;

4) He will heal people who cannot see physically, or spiritually from the dark alleys of life and the blackened stages of living and he will release or bring about freedom, a new way of life for people who sit on the outer edges of society;

And Lastly,

5) Jesus proclaims the year of the Lord or jubilee, a time in which all debts are forgiven and new life can commence.

This is great news, a time of sustained applause would have occurred.  And it was fulfilled as people listened to Jesus read the words of the prophet.  Jesus said what he was going to do and then he did it.  Vision and mission accomplished.     

We Are Beneficiaries and Legacies
We are the beneficiaries of this great teaching; of this vision.  We are the recipients of God’s message through Jesus.  Because who among us at some point in our lives have not been held captive in some way or blinded from reality, or just plain sick and in need of healing? Or in desperate need of forgiveness?  We all have.  And we certainly know that this world aches with need.  So it is more than likely will need to hear this message of love over again.  And again.  

And as legacies of Christ’s message, ministry and life that means we have a certain responsibility to carry forward his vision.  To tell the Gospel, to live the good news, to evangelize and proclaim how you have been picked up, salvaged and saved is part and parcel because the good news lives in us and through us.  In other words, quite simply to share your faith.

And we do this by using the gifts that have been given to us.  Last week we talked about spiritual gifts and I asked you to think about what gifts that you have been given that you could offer the church to reveal the Christ among us?  We cannot let Jesus’ words, his inaugural address lie dormant in the dusty pages of history.  We need to take his vision, use our gifts and in that way build up his church.

Paul tells us in the first book of Corinthians, chapter 12, ‘For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, through many, are one body, so it is with Christ…..If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.’ (v. 12 &  26)

One Message, Many Voices
There is only one message of love here, manifest in freedom and forgiveness.  And we are many voices who have our own stories of freedom and forgiveness to tell.  No one story is greater than the next.  No one has been forgiven more than anyone else.  We are in this together saved in Christ.  Loved equally.

Let us go out too and proclaim release to the captives; sight to the blind; freedom and forgiveness through Jesus Christ.  Let us go out and do the work that Christ so ably lays out before us.  And then, let us begin the sustained applause that only he deserves. 


Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Gift from Cana

John 2: 1-11
Of all of the things that can and do go wrong at a wedding, running out of libations is one that is a no-no. In fact, outside of the bride or groom getting cold feet and not showing up, running out of wine or scotch or whatever your preferred drink might be would be tragic for some. It runs a very close second to cold feet. 

Guests have a reasonable expectation that when they are invited to a joyful occasion such as a wedding that three things will happen: the couple will blissfully be joined together in matrimony; they will be treated to some sort of gourmet meal with little mounds of food artfully piled a mile high on their plate with a few sprigs of rosemary sprinkled on the plate; and that the alcohol will be free flowing all night.  It is the culture in which we live.

I’ve married two of my children and the third one will be next year, God willin’ so I now know the incredible effort that it takes to pull off such a happy event where you hope and pray that nothing goes wrong to produce disgruntled guests. 

Even though, things still go wrong.  I can remember at my own wedding, when we got to the reception one of the waitresses headed my mother off at the pass.  The baker, she said, forgot to put something on top of the wedding cake.  My mother was livid!  I was saddened.  She called the bakery but they had closed for the day.  The bride and groom cake topper that was to preside over my cake was the very same couple that stood proudly on top of my parent’s wedding cake in 1938.  We came to find out after the wedding that the baker had simply forgotten about it.  Wedding disappointments and disasters happen all of the time in all proportions.

Let us now hear about one such wedding disaster from the Gospel of John in the second chapter.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Wedding Bells in Cana
It was very unfortunate for the happy couple in Cana when the wine ran out and even more disconcerting and shameful, I’m sure, for the father of the bride.  Hospitality was of prime import back then, we see it over and over again in the New Testament.  We know this to be true of the Greco-Roman world in Late Antiquity.  Hospitality matters. 

After Jesus begins his ministry he would teach about welcoming strangers.  How many times have we seen him sit at table in the company of all sorts of people?  Even today in the Middle East hospitality is crucial to how one receives a friend or stranger.  Not one bowl of olives will be set out but three different kinds of olives with a side bowl of hummus, some pita and several different sorts of cheese.  Hospitality was an imperative part of being a decent human being.  Running out of wine should not have happened.  Someone didn’t estimate correctly the number of guests and the barrels of wine that were needed and on hand.

This is one of the few times that we get a glimpse of Jesus kicking back and having some fun.  Weddings lasted for days as they still do.  There are men’s parties, women’s parties, the final reception and Jesus and his disciples and Mary were all part of the festivities.  It’s an interesting exchange between mother and son that parents can appreciate.  Mary gets wind that the vino has run out and says to Jesus, “They have no more wine!”  Jesus says back to her, “What concern is that to you and to me?”  In other words, Jesus says to his mother, “So, what?” 

Divine reluctance rears its ugly head.  So what, who cares?  That is such an insensitive thing to pop out of Jesus’ mouth.   True, on the scale or continuum of miracles if you compare refilling wine jars to healing a blind man or a woman who had been hemoragghing for most of her life…making more wine appear is really not that important.  Someone’s life was not dependent upon the wine supply.  But Jesus must be true to his own inner calling not accountable to any human authority so he says, ‘so what, my time has not come.’

Yet after some discussion, that it seems we are not privy to, he grants her request and performs his first miracle.  He fills the jars with the best wine, and lots of it. If you do the math 6 jars times let’s say 25 gallons a piece….thats a lot of wine.  The party continues, the host saves face, and Jesus’ power and divinity is slowly seeping out into the world.  It is yet another epiphany of his true identity.  “He revealed his glory, and his disciples believed him.”

Three things happen in this scripture that are of value for our consideration: 1) Jesus recognizes that he must be true to his calling from God, 2) he or God gives in abundance-150 gallons of wine, and 3) his glory is revealed.  The Gift from Cana that I’d like to focus on this morning is being true to your calling.  

So often we get lost in life and heed the call that someone else issues for your life.  My mother wanted me to major in education in college so that ‘I’d have something to fall back on’, meaning that if I didn’t marry or something happened I could always be a teacher.  Well that was in the 70’s when women were still emerging in the workplace and it was not a slam against education because my family held education in very high regard.  It’s just that she wanted me to be a teacher and I didn’t want to be a teacher.  So I became an art major instead following my own heart with a little defiance added in for good measure.

It’s so important to remain true blue to who you are.  When you are being the best expression of yourself that you can be the world is a much better place and you are at peace in your inner soul.  Is it hard?  Well sure it is because we listen to those influential voices in our lives that lovingly tell us who we should be, how we should dress, what we should do.  They mean well.  They do.  But to be your best you need to heed your call, talents and spiritual gifts honestly.

You see we all have gifts to share, we all have been called by God for a specific purpose on this earth.  And these gifts, issued by the Holy Spirit, share in the betterment of humanity and God’s kingdom.  And the real beauty of it is is that the variety and diversity are endless.  Let me share with you a passage from 1Corinthians, the twelfth chapter the Contemporary English Version…..

My friends, you asked me about spiritual gifts. I want you to remember that before you became followers of the Lord, you were led in all the wrong ways by idols that cannot even talk. Now I want you to know that if you are led by God’s Spirit, you will say that Jesus is Lord, and you will never curse Jesus.

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but they all come from the same Spirit. There are different ways to serve the same Lord, and we can each do different things. Yet the same God works in all of us and helps us in everything we do.

The Spirit has given each of us a special way of serving others. Some of us can speak with wisdom, while others can speak with knowledge, but these gifts come from the same Spirit. To others the Spirit has given great faith or the power to heal the sick or the power to work mighty miracles. Some of us are prophets, and some of us recognize when God’s Spirit is present. Others can speak different kinds of languages, and still others can tell what these languages mean. But it is the Spirit who does all this and decides which gifts to give to each of us.

It is the Spirit who gives to each of us special gifts.  Now you might ask just what is the difference between natural talents and spiritual gifts.  There is a difference; natural talents come to us by way of genetics, context and training, whereas spiritual gifts are a result of the Holy Spirit.  Natural talents can be possessed by anyone, whereas spiritual gifts are possessed by Christians, and natural talents are used for non-spiritual purposes, whereas spiritual gifts are used to God’s glory and uplifting of ministry within the Church.  There is a difference. 

It was against Jesus’ intuition to perform that miracle at Cana but he did, he discerned that the gift of changing water into wine would reveal, lift up, begin his ministry as the son of God revealed.    Being true to your calling from God will magnify and utilize your spiritual gifts.  And as scripture tells us, “The spirit has given each of us a special way of serving others.” 

And so we must roll up our sleeves and use those spiritual gifts in the here and now.  Think about it this week.  What gifts have you been given that could lift up the church hence revealing the Christ among us?  If you’re confused, come talk to me, talk to one another.  That’s how new ministries are born, by identifying a need, identifying your gifts and then putting the two together. 

The wedding at Cana was just not a miracle story involving water, wine and a party that we listen to each year.  It holds the key to unlock the mystery of our faith in Jesus Christ and the glorious gifts that the Spirit has given to each of us.


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Pageant, Act II

Luke 2: 21-40
Pageant, Act I.  The Gospel writer of Luke pened a beautiful nativity story for us, didn’t he?  It’s calm in the hills of Bethlehem.  The shepherds who live in the hills are tending their flock.  They gaze at the same constellations that you and I gaze at today, Orion, the Pliedes, the morning star…………’s quiet….just the sounds of nature are heard as the sheep low and settle in for the evening. 

And then the Glory of the Lord comes to them and reveals the birth of a Savior.  Imagine God’s glory breaking the crisp, clean air of a tranquil and peaceful night…….. What a sight it must have been.  And in a manger, a feed box we find the infant Jesus surrounded by Mary and Joseph.  There are no riches, no midwives, no fanfare.  It’s a lowly birth that we return to year after year to remember and to recreate.  It is our story of hope and redemption.  For in every baby born God says yes to humanity.  Why it’s the story that kids tell and retell each year in their pageant finery.

But the story doesn’t end there, the author of Luke continues and pens perhaps the most poignent part of the story for us.

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
    according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
    which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Pageant, Act II.  As an observant Jewish mother, Mary brings her son Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem only eight days after his birth.  According to Jewish law it is a special time, a time for purification and a naming ceremony that designates their first born child as holy. 

But there are others in the temple that day as well who are also part of the Christmas story.  They are in fact an important part of the Christmas story, Of OUR story, but you wouldn’t know that you see unless you return after intermission to watch “Act II” of the pageant.  It doesn’t end when our children take off their shepherd suits and angel wings, and pack their halos away for another year. 

You know so often we think of Christmas as a season for children.  There is laughter and love in the birth of a child, and the lights and the cookies, and good Ole St. Nick speaks to a child’s heart that resides in all of us.  But we don’t have to be a child to have a part in the Christmas story.  We don’t have to recreate a child’s point of view to have a part in an incredible story of inclusion.  Today’s scripture shows us that there is a part for the aged and the wise in the pageant, a part those of us who have been around for a while and who are filled with wisdom.  We are included in this story of the divine.  

Luke often pairs males and females whose message is of equal importance to the passage.  The role of women in the Gospel of Luke, in spite of the male dominated world in which they lived, is intentional, and refreshing.   This is no accident!  Luke is a skilled writer.  

So we see this pairing again today in the narrative with Simeon and Anna.  They are everyday people, who have dedicated a major portion of their lives to God.  They were very faithful people their entire lives.  As prophets they don’t necessarily foretell the future like the psychic lady on the Boston Post Road, but through vigilant prayer and fasting they are able to speak for God, and be open to the revelation that God gave to them. 

They are elderly, they are respected, they are examples of pious living and they are full of wisdom and sage advice.  They are there after the stage has been struck… and the lights of the pageant have gone dark.  They are the faithful.  We will do well to listen to their message. 

They are chosen by God to tell the Gentiles, you and me, that the light, Christ Jesus has come.  This is what makes the story OURS you see…this is where we too are included in God’s plan of redemption. We too are now part of the covenant with God, that God is operative in human history, that God has reached down to this earth, to you and to me, to be an intimate part of our lives.  

Anna and Simeon understand just what the birth of Jesus means.  His divine identity is revealed in this epiphany to them.  Anna praises God and speaks about the child, and Simeon is now ready to die because he has held the child. They are ordinary people who respond in extraordinary ways to this incarnation.

The Song of Simeon is perhaps one of the most beautiful canticles in the Canon.  In the faith tradition that I grew up in, it is sung after communion every Sunday…it’s called the Nunc Dimittis in Latin.  “Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation: which Thou has prepared before the face of all people, a Light to lighten the Gentiles and the Glory of Thy people Israel.”  Now that Simeon has seen and cuddled Jesus, now that he has smelled the sweet scent of the holy infant’s head, and caressed the soft cheeks of the baby Savior, he praises God for the gift of the Christ Child.  We sang it after being fed at the communion table to recognize that our eyes had been opened through this sacrament of love and grace, forgiveness and hope.  We have tasted and have seen that God, really is good.  (Psalm 34:8.

For Simeon, he can leave this life, he can depart in peace…and in joy.  He has seen and held God’s salvation in Jesus.  He recognizes now that salvation is for all people, Gentiles included and that with this promise he can leave…..content.  He need nothing more.  Simeon can leave all worldliness behind because the Christ Child, Emmanuel is with him and Emmanuel, is with us.
3 days ago we left 2015 behind.  Were you ready? Was your heart and soul, mind and body in the right place to begin a new year?  Have you departed in peace this past year for this new one?  Will holding the Christ child give you enough strength for the journey into the unknown future ahead? 

It would be nice to say that all systems are go, and that we are ready to leave.  But in fact, there are SO many things that can keep us from moving on.  There are many situations and feelings that tether us to the past.  They are things that keep us stuck in one place and render us helpless to move on.   Is there some unfinished business that needs tending to?  Has a relationship soured but you continue to try because it is a comfortable place to be?  How can it be reconciled?
What is it that keeps you abandoned in the deeper hues of life?  How is it that you cannot just let things go?  Change is not easy – to modify one’s self or patterns is upsetting.  To give up the controlling aspect of our humanness is, for some, devastating.  I know that, I acknowledge that.  But the page of the calendar has turned, it hasn’t waited for us.  It’s time to begin again.

And we can, God is with us!   In this world… in our lives… as mundane and ordinary and troubled as our lives seem at times, God is and continues to be with us as we move and negotiate every turn.  In our coming and in our going…God is there with us…to guide us…to protect us…  You are not alone anymore, your eyes too have seen this salvation that Simeon croons. 

Yes, we can leave in peace, we can move from this place to the next with the love… and hope… and abiding promise of God that it is going to be ok, it really is.

A former chaplain supervisor of mine gave the following as a blessing upon our final gathering, I think of it often: “When we walk to the edge of all the light we have, and step into the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen: there will be something solid for us to stand on, or we will be taught to fly.”  Either way, all will be well.

Pay attention to the wisdom of Anna and Simeon.  Watch and wait and pray in the temple with them and become part of the second act.  Let Simeon’s Song…become your song.  Respond emphatically to the infant with hope and assurance.  “Lord lettest now your servant depart in peace”.  Let go and fly! A light for the Gentiles has been ignited, our hope has arrived.  Feel him, know him, caress him, cradle him in your heart for we are all now are part of the pageant to be celebrated year after year after year. 


A Quartet of Carols

December 27, 2015
Our meditation today is entitled ‘A Quartet of Carols’ because we have four beloved and beautiful carols that we will think about and sing comprising my meditation.  So this is not really a sermon per se, I’m sermoned out!

Most of my thoughts and words today have been based heavily out of the book “Then Sings My Soul” by Robert J. Morgan.  (endnotes)

Just a few words about carols and hymns though before we begin.  These beautiful pieces of music are intentional poems and writings that tell us stories of our faith. Written by the hands of faithful men and women often inspired by a moment in time or after contemplating the meaning of God in our lives they are gifts that have been passed down to us.  They aren’t random but set forth for us beautiful and poetic pieces of theology for us to think about long after the sounds have ceased.  Now let us make a joyful noise unto our Lord…..

We open with Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, PH 120 verses 1-2.

From Heaven Above to Earth I Come
Our first carol for reflection, ‘From Heaven Above to Earth I Come’ was written by one of the great and probably most well known reformers, Martin Luther.  This carol relates to the nativity of Jesus and is Luther’s interpretation of this story from Luke 2.  It is a beautiful piece reflecting incarnational theology which is the study of God coming to us in the human form of Jesus as well as the notion that we are to function as Christ in this world. 

You will note in verse 3, ‘Ah, dearest Jesus, holy child, make thee a bed, soft, undefiled.  Within my heart, that it may be, a quiet chamber kept for thee.’  In essence we are to open our hearts to the love and joy of this tiny Savior-baby.

It has been said of Luther, “he was never expected to marry, for he had taken a vow of celibacy as an Augustinian monk….even after discovering the reformation truth of Sola fidi, faith alone, and Sola scriptura, scripture alone, he intended to keep his vow.  But it wasn’t just the monks who were renouncing their celibacy vows it was also the nuns.  When he heard about a certain group of nuns who wanted to leave their order and vows, he agreed to help them.  Luther arranged for the nuns to be smuggled out in empty barrels.  He managed to find husbands for all but one, Katharina Von Bora.

Two years passed and upon a visit to her parents he joked that he might have to marry her himself to which her father heartily endorsed.  By autumn of that year, 1525 she was pregnant and Luther joyfully announced, ‘My Katharina is fulfilling Genesis 1:28”. “Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it…’.

Little Hans was born and five years later Luther wrote this Carol for him and each year thereafter was sung in their home during the Christmas Eve festivities.[i] 

PH 121 From Heaven Above – remain seated.

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
With the backdrop of revolution in Europe and the US war with Mexico fresh in his mind, Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote this somewhat romantic and slower carol around the year 1858.  He was a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School and was ordained in the Unitarian ministry.  Not one to be in a big pulpit he devoted his ministry to small towns in Massachusetts where he would have time to write and study. 

What is unusual about this beloved carol, ‘It Came upon the Midnight Clear’ is that there is absolutely no mention of Christ.  I had never realized this before until studying about Sears and this carol.  It was something that I just inferred.  His only focus is the repeated angelic request for peace on earth.

Many people criticized Sears for this ‘humanist’ carol saying it was nothing more than an ethical song extolling peace, that it’s unscriptural references to prophet-bard and age of gold did not mention the Christ child.  But that doesn’t mean that he didn’t believe.  Ironically Sears was Christ-centered and believed in his humanity and divinity.  He also believed that Jesus should be experienced in daily life.[ii]  Sears supported the equality of men and women and believed that slavery was a crime.

Again, noticing the date of this hymn, 1858 we know that it was written as the clouds of civil strife were darkening in the United States setting the stage for the War between the States.  One of the verses of this carol that is usually omitted is evidence that it was on everyone’s mind, ‘Yet with the woes of sin and strife, the world has suffered long; Beneath the angel-strain have rolled, two thousand years of wrong.  And man, at war with man, hears not, the love song which they bring; O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing!’[iii]

PH 129  It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

O Little Town of Bethlehem
If you have ever been to the Back Bay in Boston and happened upon Copley Square you will notice a large, imposing and beautiful church, Trinity Church, Episcopal.  And outside is a statue of Rev. Phillips Brooks who served that church from 1869 – 1891.  Apparently he was quite a large man standing six feet four inches and weighing at least 300 pounds!  He was criticized for thinness of doctrine and not very theologically sound sermons he, none the less, was considered one of America’s greatest preachers in the day.   

But it is this man who wrote another one of our beloved carols, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.  Before he came to Trinity Church he served a church in Philadelphia.  When he was 30 years old he visited the Holy Land. ‘On December 24, 1865, traveling by horseback from Jerusalem, he attended a five hour Christmas eve service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  He was deeply moved. Later he said, “I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the wonderful night of the Savior’s birth.’[iv]  It must have been quite and experience.

Three years later he recalled that magical night and wrote this beloved carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, for the children to sing during their annual program.  He handed the poem to his organist Lewis Render promising that if he wrote a new tune for the poem he would name the tune St. Louis after Lewis.  Lewis struggled with it but the night before the Christmas program the tune came to him.  The next day he handed it to six Sunday school teachers and 36 children who sang O Little Town of Bethlehem.[v]  And we have been singing it ever since. 

It is another piece of beautiful incarnational theology as we look at verse three,  “How silently, how silently this wondrous gift is given!  So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.  No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.  

PH 134  O Little Town of Bethlehem

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
And so what about Hark!  The Herald Angels Sing?  We sang two verses of it at the beginning of this meditation and we’ll conclude with the third and final verse.  Upon, his conversion Charles Wesley began writing hymns and wrote over 6,000 in his lifetime!  Wesley is the father of Methodism with the focus on personal faith, holiness, and experience.  God’s grace is central, it’s something we can’t earn but it is just given to us and so we are to love God with all of our heart, mind, and soul and love one another as our self. 

Reflected in the last verse which we will sing in a minute Wesley begins to set our hearts and minds on the eschaton or the final days when Christ will come again.  “Born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.” All is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Wesley didn’t like people editing his hymns, saying, “Now they are perfectly welcome to do so (that is print his hymns to sing), provided they print them just as they are.”  But when Wesley was 32 he wrote a Christmas hymn that began: “Hark, how all the welkin rings, Glory to the King of Kings.”  But one man in the church did a great favor by polishing it up to what we sing today.  The word ‘welkin’ was an old English term for ‘the vault of heaven’.  It was Wesley’s friend George Whitefield who in 1753, changed the words to the now-beloved “Hark!  The Herald Angels Sing”.[vi]


And now the final verse of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

[i] Morgan, Robert J.  ‘Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories’, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville 2003.  Book 2 p. 5.
[iii] Morgan, Robert J.  ‘Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories’, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville 2003.  Book 1, p. 121.
[iv] Ibid.  Book 1. p. 176.
[v] Ibid.  Book 1. P…….
[vi] ibid.  Book 1.  P……

Pastoral Prayer
Gracious God as we are about to embark into another year we call upon you to be present with us now in these remaining few days.  Thank you for the blessings of this year, the challenges by which we have been made stronger, and the friends and family in whom we have shared all of this.  We seek to always be in your presence, to be loved, accepted and filled with your ineffable grace.  And thank you for your incarnate word in Jesus Christ who saves and redeems us. 
The world in which we live is a complicated place, so hear us as we come before you now with our prayers.
For those who are ill in body, mind, or spirit we pray….for those who suffer from depression, mental illness, dementia, addiction, in recovery…..grant healing.
For those whose time is not long upon this earth we ask for a peaceful departures into the glorious eternal.
For the men and women who serve in our military, for the vets who have served and all who died in service we pray.  We pray for peace in this world, this community, our homes, our hearts.
Grant for our children love, faith, friendship and hope. 
In the name of the one who came to us again, Suzanne

A Time of Love Incarnate

A Christmas Eve Meditation
It was the darkest of days for Mary and Joseph.  The scorching heat of the summer had given away to colder winds and sunset now came early ushering in deep, lengthy shadows as they traversed the rocky countryside from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea. 

It was not carefree, easy living under the Roman Empire for most people.  Mary and Joseph, Jews in the first century, were not given many religious rights under King Herod and they were subject to heavy taxation by the Roman authorities.  There was a large disparity between the rich and the poor, and insecure Herod issued a decree to slaughter the lives of the innocent ones.  Life was exceedingly demanding in all ways.  And here was Mary, unwed, young, and with child.  

They needed light.  They needed some luminosity and hope that tomorrow was going to be a better day, that, their God had not forgotten them, that God was not silent in their despair and marginalized circumstances.

And when they could not find a place to stay, forcing them to lodge in a musty animal stall, their baby was born.  “And what was come into being in him [this baby] was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1: 4-5) 

The darkness did not overcome it because this baby was the light of the world, Jesus Christ.  You see the story that you’ve come to hear tonight is so much more than just a sweetened sentimental tale that bears repeating once a year.  It is the story of life born, infused with desire and the promise of resurrection hope.  It is a story of God, and God’s love incarnate in humanity, through Jesus the Christ. It is a story that has meaning each day for your life not just Christmas Eve.  It is a story of God reaching directly into your life and shining grace in all your darkest corners.

Our days are threatening right now.   Not only is this the darkest time of the year but unbelievable events have entered our lives and I am afraid they have seared our collective consciousness.  Terrorism and violence presents itself at every turn of the corner.  We have questions without answers, or without answers that will satisfy our deepest longing to know and understand the depths of God and our existential nature. 

Why does evil exit?  Why doesn’t God intervene and stop it?  Does God even care?  These real questions we bring with us tonight as we revisit the stable and kneel at the manger of so long ago.  Mary and Joseph may have asked these same questions.  Even though their faith was strong and their devotedness to God’s call on their lives was palpable, they still had questions.  What if?  How come?  What will become of us?  Let me remind you that not long after the night of Jesus’ birth the holy family became refugees themselves fleeing Herod’s tyrannical rule.

Not long after the shooting in Newtown I remember my colleague, the Rev. Matt Crebbin of the Newtown Congregational Church was asked why he didn’t use the United Church of Christ moniker, “God is still speaking” as a sign of hope in a recent interview,  pensively, Matt said, ‘because for folks God seems distant and silent right now.’  He said, ‘There are no words. Right now is the time for the ministry of incarnation, and that’s what we’re doing’.[i]

How poignant.  He meant that when there are no words that can possibly soothe an aching heart, but you can, by your mere presence, be the presence of God to someone who is in need of comfort and hope.  Just by being there!  Because by your presence, and your kindness you are the face and heart of a loving and very present God.   

That is love incarnate.  That is the incarnate God breaking into our lives.

That is what Christmas is all about, God’s word, promise, and hope becoming one with us in Jesus Christ.  And then we, extending Christ’s love to others.  “And the word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth.”  (John 1:14)  Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor says, “By choosing Christ to flesh out the word, God made a lasting decision in favor of incarnation…and it is in our own flesh and blood that the word of God continues to be made known.”[ii]

When you see the outpouring of makeshift memorials on line and in the news after all of the terrible events of our day you can’t help but see that God is all over the place and good hearts triumph over evil ones. That life, even in dire circumstances goes on, because God favors humanity and chooses life.

God’s love embodied, is what is in that manger in Bethlehem.  A newborn cries because God chooses to be with us and God’s greatest desire is for us to carry on in God’s holy name.  God’s love is personified in each one of us.

The manger takes on an especially profound meaning this year.  Christ ‘fleshes out’ for us a way to live that pleases God and that reflects the divine nature of a just and generous God.  The birth of Christ ushers in comfort, redemption and hope.

This tiny Savior-baby is God saying to us, live into your greatest potential.  Mary’s labor groaning and the borning cries of Jesus beckon you to come out of the darkness of your life into a hopeful future and that is what it is all about.  A future with hope, God has plans for you. (Jer 31)  

So take God’s profound affirmation of love with you tonight out into this world.  Be the face and hands of Jesus to others and in that way the stable, the manger, the stars and the angels become a very real and living nativity of the incarnate God, not some simple story told long ago.

May the peace of God that passes all understanding be in your hearts and minds forever. 


[i] Notes from clergy gathering on Dec. 18, 2012 at the Newtown Congregational Church.
[ii] Taylor, Barbara Brown. “The Preaching Life”, Cowley Publications, Cambridge, MA 1993, p.84.