Christmas Eve Homily

What to say on Christmas Eve–with a crowd potentially loaded with people who rarely step inside a church?  A preacher doesn’t want to guilt trip them or be a spoilsport; I’ve heard loathsome Christmas Eve sermons dwelling on how this little baby will have to die a horrible death on the cross.  Pooh.  But neither is it satisfying to simply give in completely to the secular function of the church at Christmas–to be just another lovely accoutrement to a holiday whose real heart is kids opening presents.  Besides that dilemma, I’m under strict orders to keep our 4:30 service to no more than an hour so as not to interfere with Christmas Eve dinner plans.  (No argument from me–we had a lovely meal to put together involving squash tart and latkes.)

So I came up with this.  It touches on the sense of universal affirmation that is part of the genuine substance of Christmas.  But I included a rather firm invitation to our visitors, making it plain what they might be missing on the other 51 Sundays of the year.  

Isaiah 9:2-7 and Titus 2:11-14

What happened on the night of Christmas some 2000 years ago is a great mystery. To say God was born in the world may sound very obscure. It may sound like an absurd miracle that just makes no sense. I personally love trying to plumb this mystery; and we shall explore it over the course of an upcoming adult class on the topic, “Who is Jesus Christ for us?” (You can sign up with me if you are interested.)

But what all this mystery is basically about is very simple. What appeared in the world the night of Jesus’ birth was the start of a new way of being a community. That is what our reading from The Letter to Titus tells us. “The Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” This grace trains us to renounce the ways of the world and to live godly lives “in the present age,” it says—this is about here and now. The letter tells us that Jesus Christ “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”

Don’t we need a new way to be a people, to be a community? Is our current way of being a people making us zealous for good deeds? Are we in any real way even a people at all? Aren’t we more like a loose affiliation of families and individuals, at best—and at worst, we are more and more set against one another—urban sophisticate against rural good old boy, red against blue, young and trendy against old and stuck-in-my-ways, secular against religious reactionary? When our public life is so divided, it’s no wonder we’d rather find our tribe online, or that we get so easily sucked into addiction, for the people right around us, body and soul, have become as strangers to us; maybe they are even dangerous or deluded.

In Jesus, God introduced a new, badly needed way to be a community. This new way is what Israel was searching for all along, and we heard Isaiah’s great excitement as he imagined the one who would “establish and uphold” this new way “with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.”

This is a community deeply rooted in an ancient past and its hopes; a community brought together first by Jesus and the women and men who followed him and who led it after he was raised into its everlasting eternal life. It is a community that over many centuries has made plenty of mistakes to atone for and learn from, to be sure. But it is a community well-grounded in the rich, beautiful symbols that you see around you tonight, while also open to new truths that we will discover together.   It is a community that spans every border and all times as only God can. This is what we are about here, being a people that Jesus purified for himself.

And that is why we share communion at the culmination of our Christmas celebration this evening. At the heart of the Christmas miracle is a new way of being a people—gathered around a table, sharing the most basic food and drink; and in this sharing, participating in the life of God on earth that Jesus Christ personified and inaugurated. Jesus brought this salvation to all, as the Letter to Titus told us. So we are all this community tonight, and we join in it with the angels, the animals, the stars, and every human being on earth. Join in this feast, for God embraced us all.



Third Sunday in Advent (12/17): “Rejoice unto Sanctification”

A brief meditation to go along with our children’s Christmas pageant.  

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 ; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Joy is our theme today; it is the symbol of today’s special rose Advent candle. The other candles are purple, which marks this season, like Lent, as one of fasting. We fast because we recognize that Emmanuel, God with Us, is not yet truly with us. But Advent is also a season anticipating the Coming of Emmanuel. It is a time of pregnancy. Already we can senses the presence of this newborn. Like expectant parents, we are already imagining what this Coming One will be like, already delighting in the arrival, already preparing the nursery of our heart. We might be a little off in our expectations. We might be expecting a boy and it turns out to be a girl. We might have a name picked out, and when we see the baby we might find ourselves saying, “Oh you’re just not a Stan, are you?” (Ever hear of that happening to parents?) But we are certainly right to already feel the joy. So we switch from a purple candle to a rose candle, for the joy already promised to us.

There is joy in the fast. I’m not convinced that this is the same joy as the one called for by the Christmas frenzy all around us. Everyone knows you’re supposed to be joyful at Christmas. Can’t you hear Andy Williams singing it: “It’s the most wonderful time, of the year. With the kids jingle belling, And everyone telling you be of good cheer!” (I heard a lot of Andy Williams growing up.) It’s the hap-happiest season of all.  But often people can’t say why you should be so happy. It’s just Christmas. And that’s fine. We don’t need to begrudge people a chance for midwinter cheer with friends and family. It can be a problem when people are unable to summon the joy that is supposed to be lighting up our faces, perhaps because we are missing loved ones. Joy without any real reason behind it can easily fall flat.

So it might help to investigate this distinctly Christian, Advent joy, this rose-amid-purple joy, that we celebrate today. This joy is deeper than just the feeling of happiness, in many ways. So when we hear Paul say in our reading, “Rejoice always,” does he just mean, “Don’t worry, be happy?” (Remember that?) Because I think lots of people will hear the reading from today and will latch on to just that one phrase, “Rejoice always” and, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” We’ll immediately think that Paul’s telling us to count our blessings and be happy. So then how does Paul go from there to, “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything.” Did you hear that also? And finally, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely.” There’s nothing wrong with rejoicing always, but there’s more going on in this passage.

To be brief, Paul’s message of rejoice, give thanks in all circumstances is about being happy in church. He’s writing this to “you all” in the church of Thessalonica. And he notes just before our passage that there are people in church who are idle, who are faint of heart, who are weak. (That’s true anywhere.) “Be patient with them all,” he says. Repay no one evil for evil, he says, but seek to do good to one another and to all. Then he says “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  So he means: community has its problems and its challenges. But give thanks for all the challenges, because they are part of your life in God. (He’s not saying give thanks for everything that happens to you personally, no matter how lousy it is. This is about the challenges specific to being a church.)

Such as the challenge of hearing and receiving the god-given wisdom that any of us can have. Thus Paul continues: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything.” We need to listen for God speaking in each one of us. And then not just say, “That’s nice, Fred,” but test everything, because we are taking each other’s words seriously. Your words about God make a claim on me, because we are trying to be one community before God together. How do we test? “Hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form (or idea) of evil.” That kind of listening, with critical testing—what we might call “dialogue” about God and God’s will—is critical to being “sanctified,” set apart as God’s people. It’s what I want to do with the adult (re-) confirmation class. It is not easy. Those of us closest to running this church know how challenging it can be, especially when it comes to listening to one another. We try not to repay evil for evil.  We need to be reminded in Advent to rejoice in the challenges, for these are the labor pains of the Christ being born in us.

And come Christmas Eve, we will be able to lay down our challenges and stresses for a time. We will be joined by many friends—call them C&E Christians if you like, but they will remind us that the church is not just about we who labor and struggle, but about good news to all. Then our joy shall be complete. “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”





Second in Stewardship Month: “Trimming Our Lamps”

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

Matthew 25:1-13

I wish I were better at focusing on money—for Jessica’s sake at least. In our house, I guess she gets stuck worrying more about money—not to mention making more of it.

But in this house, maybe it’s good to remember that stewardship is not really about money. Oh, I can try to do the money talk.

[I recited figures about how much we spend and what average pledge we count on to sustain this ministry.]

I know we as a congregation can give more money—many of us at least could set the church at a higher priority. If we did, we might even be able to go beyond just meeting our already pared-down budget, and start operating like a church that believes in its own future. We might be able to give our staff, whom we all love, a cost of living raise, minimally. We could also better fund and staff our missions work, which we lift up today, and fairly support the work of our denomination. We could do what we need to do to to be a strong and dependable presence in our community. In short we would be able to operate as if we really believe that the world needs this church. (I know it does—do you?)

I say this to rouse us to action. Sometimes we mean well, but we have become sluggish, drowsy like the bridesmaids in the parable. Wake up. Trim your lamps. Weigh your financial priorities carefully, and consider earnestly what supporting the house of God really means to you. Being a house of God is what all of us are trying really hard to do. I know there are other demands on your time and money—I’m in the same position. But how many of these other demands can claim to be about being a house of God?

And that is what makes stewardship not just a money matter, not just another fundraising scheme. Stewardship is a spiritual matter. If the Spirit of God were really moving among us in full power, we’d be doing more than fine. I should say, rather, when the Spirit of God comes upon us in full power, we will be more than fine, because I believe it will come—we already have a taste of it. We won’t need rousing and cajoling. We will have plenty of funding. The kind of volunteering done here by a few will be shared and amplified by many. And the kind of things that sidetrack us—personality differences, disagreements about what the church is for—will be overwhelmed by peace and unity of purpose.

Unfortunately, we can’t just make that Spirit of God reign among us in full power. I can’t will that to happen; you can’t will it. Joshua, in our first reading, is trying to prod the Israelites to do just that, to will themselves into being a faithful people: “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and faithfulness; put away the gods” of your ancestors. (If Joshua were to give a stewardship sermon, he’d explain: ‘You don’t need to spend all that money on other things, and waste your time on all those things that you do.’ Commit yourself, in your resources and your time and your passion, to serving the one true God. “As for me and my household,” he declares, throwing down the gauntlet, “we will serve the Lord.” Are you in?

And the people respond by insisting: Far be it for us to forsake God. (They sound almost tongue in cheek, don’t they?) They ante up. “We also will serve the Lord!” ‘We’re really going to do it this time, Joshua. We are so in. We got this.’

But Joshua doesn’t seem to believe them. He tells them, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sin.” (Weren’t you wondering about that? That’s the opposite of how we usually talk about God.) “If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you.”

Joshua sounds harsh. But I can explain why. The book of Joshua was finished hundreds of years after the events it portrays. It is looking back at these early, heady days of Israel, when things looked promising. But centuries later, the people who completed Joshua found themselves in exile, having lost the temple and the land they loved. And they blamed the people’s lack of faith. The exile, they believed, was God’s punishment for mixing their loyalty to God with other loyalties, other gods. (We do not have to agree with them about that.) Joshua’s cautionary words—You cannot serve the Lord—seem to predict that things are going to end badly.

Now stewardship month is our time to gather together and say: We will serve the Lord! But like the authors of Joshua looking back, we know it’s not so simple as just saying, Yes we can! with youthful exuberance. Our church founders probably felt that way. But we know that the road is long, and we are weak; and not just weak in our budget, but weak in our faith. Some of you are strong; I wish I were stronger in faith, and surely that’s where many of us are. And not just us; massive swaths of the Christian world are weak in faith. But it’s not because we have chosen to be unfaithful to God. It’s not like we stood up and said, “No, I’m not going to serve the Lord!” The weakness of our faith comes from a thousand reasons. Ask yourself: why isn’t the church closer to the center of my life? Why isn’t the church a greater source of sustenance for me, as well as the place I devote my greatest resources and energies? I mean, it shouldn’t sound too strange to think of putting the house of God as number one in your life! It sounds like an obvious choice. But think about all the reasons the church is not your clear number one, and pretty quickly they will start to pile up. There are so many other commitments and pleasures that vie for our attention, so many other little gods—career, family, friends, TV, fitness, good food and drink, travel, study. None of these little gods seems to ask for too much; they just ask for a little of our time, not a total commitment. But pretty soon they all add up to a lot. And these little gods seem so much closer and more real to us, sometimes, than the God of Israel, the God of Jesus. We believe; but as if in a kind of fog. God is there, in our lives, but in a kind of hazy, rather than a clear and commanding way. We didn’t choose that. And then there are our personal failings, separating us from God further; and last but certainly not least, the failings of the church itself, which so often does not seem to be a true and faithful house of God. Like I said, there are a thousand reasons why it’s hard for us, and for those who never step foot in a church, to take God absolutely seriously, to feel God that way, and to commit to God in that spirit. We are not alone in this problem; it’s completely common among churches like ours: middle class, mainline churches in the throes of modern life and all its uncertainties.

Joshua seems to know that putting God first won’t be as simple as just saying, “We will serve the Lord!” And I know we’re not going to completely turn this church around and be filled with Holy Spirit power, and so to conquer all our problems with money and with volunteering and drawing in new members, by having a <pledge drive>. But that’s ok. Joshua let the people make their pledge anyway. And we do well to stand here today and next week and not only state, “I will serve the Lord!” but back it up with a pledge of money and commitment to volunteering. This is a good and necessary first step, even if it’s not going to get us across the finish line.

But we’ve got something the Israelites and Joshua didn’t have. We have the witness of Jesus. That doesn’t mean we are more capable than they. It certainly doesn’t give us a free pass. If anything, we must own up to the fact that Jesus proved that our human flesh can be faithful to God, so faithful as to be without sin. We have no excuse for our failings, despite those thousand reasons I mentioned. At least we know what absolute faithfulness looks like, and it leads to a cross.

But with Jesus’ witness, we also know that being faithful to God isn’t just on us. We don’t have to just will ourselves, each one of us, to love God and follow God alone. That has never worked. We don’t need to just beat our chest and promise to give it 110%. I know I can’t really be godly by sheer will power, but only if we become godly together, by God’s grace moving in us, God’s Spirit being our power. For that we have to let ourselves be shaped as a people by listening once again to the story of Jesus, which tells us about how through Jesus the Holy Spirit first came to the church. So it’s a good thing that stewardship month is followed directly by Advent. If our stewardship pledge is a first step, the next step takes us back to Christmas. Because we don’t just need to decide about a pledge. We need to be united with God, to be one with God, and in that very oneness with God, one with each other. Jesus is our guide to union with God. Jesus shows us that union with God is possible because God is merciful and receives us in all our failings. And Jesus shows us that our true power is not in me and my little “I will serve the Lord!” Our true power, the power that overcomes death and failure, comes from God. We can become a people full of the Holy Spirit—at least close enough, as far as our merciful God is concerned. It will take more time than filling our a pledge card; it will take deeply imbibing the story of Jesus together.

Our story from Jesus for today—one of the stranger parables—is appropriately about persistence. The 10 bridesmaids are the Christians of the early church, chosen by God to be devoted to Christ and to await his return, at which time all things will be set right and there will be a beautiful wedding banquet. The early church never planned to go it alone; they assumed Jesus would return soon. But in this parable, the bridegroom is delayed. It doesn’t say why. The bridesmaids all fall asleep. But the wise among them were ready for this delay; they brought with them extra oil for their lamps. The foolish hadn’t brought enough oil, and apparently this oil can’t be shared. You yourself have to be prepared if Christ doesn’t come quickly; that much is on each of us.   We have all been invited to the banquet; we all know whom the banquet is for. Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are invited to the banquet. But living in this time of ours, this time of delay, this time of a thousand nattering reasons, is not easy. Each of us has to be wisely prepared. Because those who did not prepare for a delay, for the long night that lures us to sleep and to fail in our watchfulness, will find themselves shut out of the banquet.

As it turned out, that night has lasted 2000 years. We worship one very late bridegroom. (I’m always running late so I sympathize.) Anyone who thought waiting for the Kingdom of God to come was going to be quick and easy was long ago rudely awakened. This long night and 999 other reasons press us to find wisdom, to trim our lamps and be well stocked with extra oil to keep our light going in this long, but very exciting and festive night. Now, the bridesmaids are us Christians; the bridegroom is Jesus returning; what does the oil in this parable signify, you might ask? We talked about that in Bible study. There are many theories. I think the parable leaves it unexplained for a good reason. It is for we bridesmaids who want to be wise to figure out together what we are going to need—what is going to light our way—so we can make it through this long night and stay prepared for Jesus to come.