Saturday, December 31, 2011

Eve of a New Year

No sermon for tomorrow because we are finishing our Christmas celebration with Lessons and Carols.  Lots of scripture, lots of singing as we move from the manger to the temple to the wise men. 

Instead, I offer prayers for a peace-filled New Year that is prosperous and justice-filled for all.

Gracious God,
We know that things in this world are just not the way they should be, not the way you planned it to be.  We come off our Christmas high, having seen a glimpse of 'peace on earth' and 'goodwill to all' even as we seen evidence of war and hate and greed.  Help us O God.  Save us from ourselves!

When we pray 'your kingdom come,' help us to be open to the ways your Spirit is bringing the kingdom closer.
When we pray 'your will be done,' bring our desires into line with yours.
When we pray ' give us our daily bread,' give us also hearts that generously share that which we receive from your hand.
When  we pray 'lead us not into temptation,' make us sensitive to all the ways you point us to paths of righteousness. 
When we pray 'deliver us from evil,' help us to understand that sometimes knowing that you walk with us through the evil is all the deliverance we need.

We ask in the name of your Son, the Word Made Flesh, the Light that Banishes the Darkness.  Amen.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Eve: Silent Night

Readings for this evening:  Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20
They sat in the silence of the night.  Suddenly a song drifted on the breeze.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht

They looked up from their trenches across the no man’s land to the German side.  There, lights were flickering – small Christmas trees, complete with candles, adorned the front edge of the trenches.  Families and hometowns of the German soldier had sent care packages and small trees to their loved ones off fighting during Christmas 1914 – the first Christmas of WWI.
The British soldiers had care packages as well.  Their country and hometowns and loved ones sent generous reminders of home – small comfort to soldiers who thought this “war to end all wars” would be over long before they were faced with the reality of a cold Christmas Eve at the Western Front.

Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,

The lights from the trees illuminated the German soldiers, making them easy targets in the dark.  Amazingly the British soldiers held their fire.  Soon, a sign was spotted “No shoot tonight.  Sing tonight.”  The Germans were inviting the British to join them in their Christmas Eve celebration!
A few soldiers ventured into the no man’s land to be met by a few from the other side.  They smiled and shook hands and wished each other a “Merry Christmas” and “Fröhliche Weihnachten!”  More soldiers joined them and soon the no-man’s land became a meeting place, a killing zone became a place of peace and friendship.  Pictures of loved ones waiting at home were admired.  Carols were sung in English and German.  Gifts were exchanged – buttons and items from the care packages.  Addresses were exchanged so men could keep in touch after the war. 

Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

This impromptu Christmas Eve truce broke out all over the Western Front as war-weary men from both sides embraced the promised peace of Christmas.  Over 500 miles of front line, German and English and French and Danish soldiers shared food, fellowship.  Christmas Day dawned, and the truce continued as they collected their fallen comrades from yesterday’s battle and buried them.  In some cases, men from both sides joined for Christmas Day communion services.  The festivities continued throughout the day, with songs and games – even a few soccer matches.
Back at their respective headquarters, the generals were not happy with this turn of events.  Orders were issued for the fighting to resume.  In some cases, units has to be rotated from the front and replaced with new units as the soldiers refused to take up arms against those whom had shared the bittersweet joys of Christmas far from home.

They sat in the silence of the night.  Suddenly a song drifted on the breeze.
"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

They looked up at the glowing sky.  The light grew and they could see wings and bodies – angels, lots of angels – coming toward them.  They shrank back from the light.  From the light and angelic voice said, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."

The shepherds looked around in wonder as the angels burst into song.  And then, as suddenly as they came, the angels were gone.
As one they turned to Bethlehem, hurrying to find this child whose birth caused the angels to sings.  And they found him, just as the angels said, in a manger, his mother watching as he slept.

Peace on earth!  The Messiah who will bring God’s kingdom to humankind is here!  They couldn’t wait to tell their families, their neighbors.
That evening Roman generals sat in the comfort of their headquarters issuing orders for this war and that battle to preserve and extend the Pax Romana. They didn’t hear the angels’ song or stand with the shepherds at the manger, so they didn’t know that a child was born who would bring true peace to the world.

There’s a song drifting in the air tonight.

We’ve heard a month of carols in the stores.  We’ve heard greetings of Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays during this time billed as the “happiest season of all.”  It’s Christmas time.
At Christmas time the whole world acknowledges things aren’t the way they should be.  The whole world longs for peace, yearns for love, aches for hope.  At Christmas time, we get a glimpse of peace, a glimmer of the world the way it should be.  We hear stories of people helping other, stories of generosity.  Stories of Christmas peace like the 1914 Truce. 

But after Christmas, the generals of the powers of the world entice us to turn again to war, and hate and hopelessness.  The Christmas spirit fades.  People go back to life as usual.

What about us, the keepers and tellers of the Story?   Tonight we’ll sing Silent Night and Joy to the World.  Well share the bread and the wine and marvel again the God loved us so much that God became one of us.
Do we leave here carrying Christmas with us, living it every day?  Or do we allow the generals of the powers of this world to order us back into the fight?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Fourth Sunday in Advent: Greetings, Favored One!

Readings for this week:  2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:46-55;  Romans, 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38 (0r 26-55)  

Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you!
Favored one?  Favored how?

She’s just an ordinary 13 year old girl.  She lives in an ordinary village, no different from the hundreds of peasant villages in the region.  She’s got ordinary peasant parents, and an ordinary family.  She’s betrothed like most of the other 13 year old girls in her first century Palestine village to an ordinary man from the same village.  There’s nothing special about her.  Even her name – Miriam,(Mary) – is ordinary.  Everyone in Judea names a daughter after Miriam, Moses’ sister, a strong woman, a prophetess, a hero of the faith. 
She’ just ordinary, plain, old Mary.  She’s not the type of person who gets messaged from angels.  Yet, here’s an angel with a message for her.  His greeting confuses her - she doesn’t feel favored at all. 

After the angel’s next words, she’s not sure she wants to be favored.  Being favored by God in this case means she’s going to be an unmarried pregnant teen.  And while the prophecy about her son-to-be sounds wonderful – Son of God, king in the line of David, a kingdom that lasts forever – she’s pretty sure her parents and her fiancé, Joseph, are not going to like this so-called favored status.  Who’s going to believe that she got pregnant by God?  The small town talk will spread like wildfire.
“What? Me? How?”  She knows, of course, how women get pregnant.  She’s betrothed, practically married, although not living with Joseph yet.  This news is so astonishing, so incredible, so mind-boggling, the question sputters out as she struggles to understand just what the angel is telling her.

The Holy Spirit will come upon you.”   
“The power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

For nothing will be impossible with God.”

What is she getting herself into?  Is she strong enough, good enough, wise enough, anything enough for this?  But, then, does it matter?  Because God’s spirit will come over her and God has promised to overshadow her – to protect her, to sustain her, to go with her.  She may not be enough, but God is. 
Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

And in her ‘yes’ to God, Mary is transformed.

She has to see for herself if the angel is right about Elizabeth.  Amazing that Elizabeth would after all these years of childless marriage, finally be pregnant.  Just like Abraham and Sarah, barren for so long and then God gives them Isaac in their old age.  Like Hannah, who prays for God to remove her barrenness and give her a child, Samuel, who becomes one of Israel’s greatest prophets.  These are pregnancies of miracle – life where there was no possibility of life.
She greets Elizabeth, unmistakably pregnant. Elizabeth gasps, and says her baby leaped for joy to be in the presence of the child Mary herself is carrying.  Mary hasn’t even said that she is pregnant, but Elizabeth knows Mary is carrying God’s Son, because the unborn John is already testifying, pointing to Jesus. 

Mary, ordinary Mary, breaks into song, becoming a prophet, proclaiming God’s mercy and justice, God’s in-breaking into the world and upsetting the powers of evil and oppression.

“Let it be with me according to your word.”

Sure there were moments of doubt, of uncertainty, times she did not understand.  She pondered and prayed – a lot.  She fretted when 12 year old Jesus went missing, only to be found in the temple.  At one point in his ministry, his radical teachings and the rumors she heard made her certain Jesus was insane and needed to come home.  She cried out to God in pain and doubt, wondering where the promise went as she watched Jesus breathe his last. 
But through it all, she remembered the angel’s words:

 The Holy Spirit will come upon you.”
“The power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Mary, ordinary Mary, becomes a strong woman, capable to the task of raising God’s Son, of guiding him as he begins his ministry, of standing by him as he suffers on the cross.

Mary, ordinary Mary, becomes a hero of the faith.

Peasant girl to prophetess, maiden to Mother of God – in telling the story, Mary becomes larger than life.  She is the model of perfect obedience and quiet acceptance of God’s will. 
In making Mary into a saint, we lose something.  When Mary becomes this extra-ordinary example of faith, we forget that God works through the most unlikely of people.  We get to sit back and enjoy the story of Mary’s great faith, safe from the possibility of God interrupting our ordinary lives. 

Is this story just a once upon a time happening? 
Or do we believe that God still breaks into the world, using ordinary people like you and me?

Because if we believe that God still breaks into the world and calls ordinary people to build up the kingdom of God, then the angel’s words to Mary are also addressed to us:
Greetings, favored ones!  The Lord is with you!

True, I’m no angel.  But by virtue of the God’s call, and the call this congregation has issued to me, I act as a messenger of God.  Again, I say to you:
Greetings, favored ones!  The Lord is with you!

I imagine you’re thinking:  What me, favored?  I’m just an ordinary person.  I’m just a teen age girl.  I’m just a high school boy.  I’m just a farmer.  I’m just a mom.  I’m just a retired person.  I’m just a bank employee, or a factory worker, or a waitress, or – well you fill in the blank. 
There’s nothing special about me.  I come from an ordinary family in a small town, in a rural part of South Dakota.    I have no special skills, no talents.  I have trouble getting around, or I have health problems – or whatever you have that you think limits how God can use you.

I say again:
Greetings, favored ones!  The Lord is with you!

You are favored.  God has favored you, has a purpose for you even before you were born, has called you in the waters of baptism.   God’s favor and grace rests on you.
God plans to use you to do marvelous, wondrous things. 

Yes, you.
 And you.

 And you.

You are favored and you are called.  I invite you to ponder and pray, to puzzle and dream, to look around with expectancy and hope this week before Christmas.  What is it that God has called you to do? Where has God invited you to make a difference, to bring the kingdom of heaven a little bit closer to earth?

I invite you to respond to the angel’s message, and to God’s call.
"Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with you and intends to do great things through you.

To this you may want feel like saying: "How can this be? We are ordinary, everyday people."

"Yet you have found favor through God, and the Holy Spirit will come upon you, guide you, and work through you to care for this world and people God loves so much. For nothing is impossible with God.

Mary’s words become our own:  "Here am I, a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word."[i]

[i]  Adapted from David Lose’s commentary, used by permission.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Third Sunday in Advent: Do you hear what I hear?

Readings for this Sunday:  Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46-55; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

One of my favorite Christmas Carols is “Do You Hear What I Hear.”  One of the things I like best about the song it how the story gets passed along – the night wind tells the lamb, who tells the shepherd boy, who tells the king, who tells everyone.

I like how the story is told just a little bit differently each time.  The wind talks about a star, the lamb about a song on the night, the shepherd boy talks about a child shivering in the cold and the king announces the child will bring peace, goodness and light to all.  The story was experienced in different ways by each storyteller, who told others about what they had experienced.

It is just that kind of story – it begs to be told again and again. 

The portion of the story we hear today starts out: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.”  And he said to the people who came to the wilderness, “do you see what I see”.  He answered the priests and the Levites who wanted to know if he was the Christ, “do you know what I know.  There is one standing in your midst, right now, whom you do not know, but whom I am unworthy to even untie the laces of his sandals.”  You know, John didn’t really answer their last question.  He totally ignored their question about his authority to baptize – he was too intent on proclaiming the coming of Jesus! John could not contain telling what he knew – the good news of God coming among us. 

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

Last week we talked about John and how his job was to prepare the way of the Lord, to preach repentance in order that hearts would turn back to God.  This week we hear about another part of John’s job - he was sent from God to testify to the light.  That was his purpose – to point out the star, the song, the child, the one who brings goodness and light.  When he is questioned by the priests and Levites, he says two significant things:  He is not the Christ and the one who is the Christ is here.

John was very clear about who he is and who he is not.  And he knew what his purpose was – to be the voice calling out in the wilderness.  To point to Jesus.  To proclaim the coming of the Lord. 

And John does proclaim him.  In the very next verse after the end of our reading, John says “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” 

There was a man sent from God”.  John’s story is also our story.  John was sent from God to testify to Jesus.  And, like John, we are also sent, from Jesus, to testify, - to point to Jesus, who points to God. 

We point to Jesus when we recognize the “God” moments in someone’s life, and open their eyes to the presence of God with them.  We point to Jesus when we are agents of God’s love in the lives of others – “Jesus with skin on” to the people around us.  We point to Jesus in the way we live our lives, the way we treat others.  We point to Jesus when we gather in worship and around the bread and the wine. 

There was a man sent from God.  His name was John.”  And here we are, sent by Jesus, called by his name.  We are sent to witness to the Light. 

We are called to be storytellers.  And what a story we have to tell!   We announce that the coming reign of God is here!  Isaiah says it is good news for the oppressed, healing for the brokenhearted, liberty for the captives, and that justice and righteousness flow freely(Isaiah 61:1-11).  Mary sings of the lowly being lifted up and the hungry being satisfied with good things (Luke 1:46-55).  Light has come into the world – God’s light - and the darkness put up a good fight against the light.  The darkness still puts up a good fight against the light; the darkness doesn’t know that it was beaten by the coming of a child, and a dark day on a cross, and a bright morning where the tomb was empty and nothing would ever be the same again.

Think about it.  Think about the story we have to tell, of how God comes to us.  Think about what we have seen and heard and experienced of God’s grace and love.  How can we stay in our seats!  How can we not cry out! 

There was one sent from God, and that one is you.  And me.  And all Christians everywhere.  We are called to be that voice calling out in the wilderness of a world that doesn’t recognize Jesus standing in its midst.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Second Sunday in Advent: Prepare the Way!

Readings for this Sunday:  Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

“Pre- ee –ee -paare ye the waay of the Looord.
Pre- ee –ee -paare ye the way of the Lord!”

I can’t help it.  After reading the texts for this week, that’s the only song going through my brain:
“Pre- ee –ee- paare ye the waay of the Looord.

Pre- ee –ee - paare ye the way of the Lord!”
Sorry, I got carried away again. 

But it got me thinking – if Advent is a time of waiting and preparation, what are we waiting for?  And how do we prepare for it?

My tree went up Thanksgiving Eve.  If I don’t get it done by the first Sunday in Advent, it doesn’t happen.  And the wreaths for the door came this week.  It’ s beginning to look a lot like Christmas at the Hayes house!
We’ve got our halls decked and I’ve made a list, and checked it not once, not twice, but several times. 

So, let’s see….
Tree up – check.
Gift list made – check.
Gifts purchased – working on it.
Cookies baked – in progress.
Christmas cards mailed-  not yet.

Of course, these are things we do to prepare for Christmas.  But our holiday hustle and bustle doesn’t really prepare the way of the Lord.

We decorated the church at Pollock, and Peace will be decorated soon.  I’ve put out a plea for special music and favorite carols.  Soon I will sit down and plan the Christmas Eve worship, and Christmas day worship.  The children are rehearsing for their programs.
Again, these are things we do to prepare for Christ-mass.  Sure, preparing the church, planning worship, teaching our children the Christmas story is part of preparing the way of the Lord.  But that voice crying in the wilderness invites me to stop and take a look – how much of this is spiritual hustle and bustle and how much prepares my heart – our hearts – for the coming of the Lord?

“Pre- ee –ee- paare ye the waay of the Looord….”
 Isaiah uses the image of a great highway – fill in, bring down, smooth out.  In Isaiah’s time, there were royal highways – roads prepared for kings to use for public procession.  They were wide and straight and smooth.  Nebuchadnezzar built a royal highway for the annual procession of the god Marduk – a straight brick path where the god could be carried easily on his throne.

Highways like that weren’t easy to make in those days.  In fact, they aren’t easy to make today.
We’re talking major road construction here.  We’ve seen some of that this year out on 83, with the road torn out and new foundations laid down.  It’s long hard work, full of dust and delays. It takes time and sweat to make the path straight, and sometimes it gets rougher and more winding before the straight smooth road is finished.

Prepare the way of the Lord.  This isn’t patching a few potholes or putting down a new layer of chip-n-seal.  This is major roadwork, tearing down the road to its very foundations, straightening out that treacherous switchback, leveling off the steep grade.

“Pre- ee –ee  paare ye the waay of the Looord….”
That was John the Baptizer’s job – to prepare the way of the Lord.  He was the foreman in charge of preparing the royal highway of hearts.  He called people to repent and to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.  It was a “tear out the old, lay down a new foundation, make the rough places smooth” operation.

And people came out in droves to see this prophet in the wilderness – from all over Judea, Jerusalem, city and country, poor and rich, everyone wanted to hear what John had to say.  What seems decidedly weird to us sounded exciting and hopeful to the people of Judea and Jerusalem. 
·         He word wore camel hair garments just like Elijah. 
·         He lived in the wilderness, eating locust and wild honey – just like the prophets of old who went into the wilderness to get a word from God.
·         There was the belief that Elijah, who was swept up to heaven in a chariot of fire, would return to proclaim the coming of the messiah.
·         Maybe this wilderness preacher who talked of one more powerful coming, really was Elijah – maybe Messiah was near!

People were wading into the Jordan, confessing their sins, being baptized.  Hearts were open, hope was in the air, lives were changed, God was met in the wilderness.
And the one who was more powerful than John, who baptizes with the Holy Spirit did indeed come.

 “Pre- ee –ee  paare ye the waay of the Looord….”
We're in the middle of the annual preparation for his coming.  We’re in the Christmas swing –we want to hear about peace on earth and good will toward men.  We want to deck the halls, not make the paths straight.  We want to sing joy to the world!  We want to stand at the manger, marveling that God came to us as a baby.

Instead we find ourselves today standing in  the wilderness listening to a wild man yell out to anyone who would listen, “God is coming, God is here!  One who is more powerful than me is coming.  Prepare the way of the Lord. Let every heart prepare him room!”’

I’m not sure that I know how to do that.
I think sometime the busy-ness of the season – both holiday and spiritual – makes the way rough and rocky.  We need  this time in Advent,  to step away from the Christmas tree and to let the manger wait, to spend a little time in the wilderness with John listening to the wind, listening to our breath, listening for God.   

In the wilderness, the call to prepare the way of the Lord changes from one more thing on our holiday to-do list and becomes an invitation to meet God.  Maybe all we need to do is be there and to be open.  
We might just discover that God has already prepared the way for us.