“a grown-up Christmas list,” December 20, 2015


Responsive Call to Worship
We congregate
to know and celebrate
the reason
for the season:
Santa baby Jesus,
here’s a list of all I want.
So on your annual December birthday jaunt—
all this stuff,
it’s never enough.
I want more than
what’s wrapped and put under a tree, you see?
I want more than,
“it’s never enough—
all this stuff.”
So on your annual December birthday jaunt,
here’s a list of all I want,
Santa: baby Jesus.
For the season,
the reason
to know and celebrate
we congregate.

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.
Jeremiah 29:11-14
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord,
plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.
When you search for me, you will find me;
if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord,
and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations
and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord,
and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Pastoral Prayer
’Tis the season, God,
to tell the stories
you tell when it’s hard to believe in hope—
stories themselves hard to justify
when it’s dark and cold,
and you’re tired and lonely—
you’re sick—
you’re stressed—depressed,
and Caesar decrees Empire’s rules.

And yet—and yet we tell a story
of hope—
and peace on earth—
and joy that shall be for all people.
A story of the lost found,
the sick healed,
and the dead raised.
What a crazy story to be telling—
all evidence to the contrary.
And yet—that’s the story we claim
and proclaim.
Not just because that’s the story we were taught.
Not just because light shines brightest
when it’s darkest.
But because there’s something of God
in such a story told.
And because we have discovered
in our living
we have discovered it to be true—
somehow true.

And so the unlikely is in the works.
The impossible looms on the horizon.
The amazing and wondrous is born.
And we keep dreaming the big dreams—
the life and world changing dreams
the ones hard to hold on to—
let alone believe.

The ones we have to be regularly reminded of.
The ones we have to be encouraged not to let slip away.
The ones we have to entrust to others sometimes
because we just can’t ….

That’s the story we tell.

‘Tis the season.
And ’tis the God—
in Jesus’ name

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
A sermon in three parts—
three independent but interrelated parts
I’m going to invite you to connect for yourselves—
in whatever ways you see fit.

Part the First:
Last week, we talked about how we,
as followers of God in the way of Jesus,
always have at least two stories to tell—
the story (or stories) our culture teaches us,
and our faith story.

One thing we often forget though, amidst Advent waiting—
Advent anticipation and celebration—
Advent waiting for Jesus—
Advent waiting for the manger scene to be made complete—
for the Christ candle to be lit—
amidst all our waiting, we often forget that long ago,
amidst the initial waiting and anticipation,
those waiting, almost without exception,
all anticipated the wrong thing—the wrong person.

Those ancient anticipations of Messiah
were virtually all political—of a king—
a mighty warrior—a general.
They were looking for someone powerful,
and their anticipation focused their vision.
Such that, looking for someone powerful,
they overlooked a baby.
And few saw the baby born for who he was.

They were looking for someone to take care of them,
and got someone they needed to take care of.
It’s no wonder they couldn’t see what lay before them.

It took whole other story—
another celebration—
for the dawning realization to sink in.
Oh, this—this is the one.
Not the one who gifts us,
but the one to whom we bring gifts.

And even so, Jesus would expend so much energy
throughout his ministry,
countering all the expectations counter to who he was—
counter to how he was.

So part of our waiting should include,
don’t you think?—
not just reflections on those preliminary stories of waiting,
and our own waiting in commemoration,
but also the story of how our own expectations and hopes today,
focus our own vision too—
so we don’t see all that lies before us either.
So we listen for what will be done for us,
rather than for what we can do for others—
for the least of these.
Our celebrations of story too often don’t include
where we go wrong.
And that’s important.

Even the right story
can be heard wrong and told wrong.
So if our commitment is truly to the best story—
to not settling for lesser ones,
then our commitment necessarily includes
sifting through versions of the best story
discerning where even that one
has been compromised—
where it calls us to a deeper truth
than too many expressions of it.

Something our culture so needs
is to remember—is to be reminded—
to have modeled for it,
the truth that even before acknowledging what’s wrong,
there’s acknowledging that something’s wrong.
so important—
step one to growth—
to improvement—
to a better story—
part of growing up.

Part the Second:
A grown-up Christmas list is a list you make
having grown-up beyond the desire for just more stuff—
beyond the expectation that something wrapped and put under the tree
would satisfy what never seems satisfied
come Christmas past.
I think that works grammatically—
when what you anticipate leading up to Christmas
hasn’t been satisfied looking back on Christmas.

A grown-up Christmas list is a list
not of things you want to get from others,
but of what you commit to being—how you commit to being—
not waiting for someone else to take care of you and your world,
but choosing to live the story
you’ve decided is the best story for you and for your world.
For the story we live, we become a part of—
and we become a part of creating.

And there’s nothing vague or imprecise—
non-specific about such a claim.
It’s about as direct and precise
and clear and specific a word as can be said.
And more and more,
I think in simple terms of consequence.
It’s physics.
It’s the law of cause and effect.
It’s common sense.
Not reward and punishment—
do good, get good;
do bad, get bad,
but do good and good ensues—
not always directly—
not always obviously—
not always quickly,
but good is a part of more good—
not reward—
In like manner,
do bad and bad ensues—
not always directly—
not always obviously—
not always quickly,
but bad is a part of more bad—
not punishment—

The means are the ends,
so we don’t want them to be mean.
We choose kindness.
We choose grace.

“If you seek me with all your heart,
I will let you find me, says the Lord in Jeremiah.
And I love this quote from the gospel of Thomas—
Jesus saying, “Know what is in front of your face,
and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you.”
Live the story of God into the truth of God with us.

Now that’s a longer term view than we cultivate in this culture,
in which we tend not to look past the immediate—
the next—
the obvious—
the direct.
So, again, how important to acknowledge—
to affirm and to model.

Part the Third:
This Tuesday, December 22, is the Winter Solstice—
that means the shortest day of the year—
or, said another way, the darkest day of the year—
the longest night.

Now maybe you know this too,
some of you,
at this darkest time of the year,
on Friday—Christmas day,
there’s to be a full moon—
the fullest reflection of the light of the sun
in the depth of the night.

So one day, two people, full of light reflected from the Holy—
from beyond the horizon of the seeable and the knowable—
let’s call them, oh, I don’t know—Francis and Teresa,
or Martin and Rosa, or Bobby and Christy—Peter and John—
it doesn’t matter—two with whom you identify light—
and these two, full of light, encounter another person—
someone in need.
And it’s obvious—the need—
easy to recognize—
someone sick—someone without some of the most basic of necessities.
Let’s say it’s an Assyrian—or a Babylonian—
a Samaritan. It doesn’t matter.

And they say to this person, “Look at us.”
And whatever it is, let’s say this Syrian, sees,
looking at them,
it creates an expectation.
I don’t know specifically what might have been expected,
but it was probably something that fell into familiar categories—
expecting what he or she knew to want—

But they say, in response to expectation,
“We don’t have what most value.
We don’t have any money to give you—any food or clothes”—
which would had to have created some disappointment, no?—
a deflated hope.
It’s interesting that that’s also often what disappoints us, too—
deflates us.
We don’t have the money for that.
But these two—so full of reflected light
are willing to disappoint expectations
that don’t have to do with light.
They’re willing to confront expectations
that we’re sometimes—often—too afraid to disappoint.

We feel like if we don’t have money,
we don’t have anything to offer,
while money is the least of what we have to offer.

Now see, you may have heard me say almost the exact opposite before.
I’ve always had a deep suspicion of those who say,
“God loves you. Repent and believe.
We’ll baptize you, but we can’t help you”—
always felt, within Maslow’s hierarchy of need,
that people need bread to eat
before you can talk to them about the bread of life.
Still feel that way.
I do.

But these two say, “We don’t have what most value—
what you’re probably hoping we have to give you,
but what we do have we give you freely.
We share with you the light we know.

We can offer you a better story—
richer—deeper—truer—than any other we’ve heard—
maybe than you’ve heard—
certainly than any our culture boasts.
We tell a story that boldly claims whatever befalls you—
no matter how terrible,
it is not intended.
It is not planned.
It is not some divinely ordained judgment on you or your actions.
And within whatever befalls you,
you are loved—you are valued—
accepted and cherished.

So you see, as unimpressive as this may sound—
as uninspiring—as irrelevant,
this story, told in the key of you,
is then always one of hope—
of unexpected, unsuspected possibilities.
It is always a story of peace
that won’t compute—
of a faith that can’t be understood
though you carefully consider all the facts.
It’s a story of joy beyond measure—
a story of blessing undeserved—
of love unconditional—
of respect extended—
of inclusiveness taken for granted.
And how much more than money
does the world need a story like that?

I wondered this past week whether to say
we have a story that trumps Trump’s.
And I decided, obviously, yes—
not only that I would say it, but that I needed to say it—
because stories of suspicion and fear and blame—
of rejection, exclusiveness, and division—
of disrespect, generalizations and lies—
of anger not rooted in a greater love
have no place in the light.
Stories of success defined by an inflated opinion and stuff
use stuff and opinion as stuffing to inflate a two-dimensional story
that is too shallow—too limited—too fake and wrong to condone.
And what happens when representatives of the light
don’t confront such stories?
Don’t reject stories that are not of the light?
The world is a darker place.

Now I’m certainly not saying
we always feel we can live the better story.
I’m not saying we always choose to live the story of light.
But we dare not deny it as the better story—
dare not reject it as the alternative of light
to a world of darkness.

And so the consistency—the proliferation
of all those crazy stories of barren women who have children,
and of the sick made well—
the blind who see—
the lame who walk—
the lepers healed—
the dead raised—
all those stories have less to do with impossibility
than with hope awakened—
hope awakened and sustained
in the midst of what does not compute.

Life is not big enough for the wonder known within it—
the depths of love experienced within it.
There is a light reflected in life
that is bigger than anything we can know.
I’ve learned this. I hope you have.
And if life is not big enough
for what’s experienced within it—
if life contains what cannot be contained,
doesn’t that paradox
undo any expectation of what is possible
and suggest the truth and the value
of gifts beyond the tangible?—
of gifts you can’t allow yourself to expect—
wouldn’t even ever think to put on a list.

I invite you to imagine reality
as a vast, concrete parking lot.
It’s huge. It’s ugly— to all appearance
You stand in the middle of it—
grey concrete stretching to the far horizons—
a massiveness utterly beyond you.
It took machines and engineers decades to make.
It cost a whole lot.

But it doesn’t take much of a crack at all
in one small part of that vast—
it doesn’t take much soil at all in that not much of a crack—
for roots to take hold—for grass to grow—
or a shrub or a tree—
roots and growth and life eventually shattering concrete.
Just so, hope grows in what to all appearances it shouldn’t.
So do you, amidst your reality,
tend to the concrete that surrounds you,
or the life that might be?
Your choice, your participation in one story, shapes what will be.

There’s the story of the old grandfather who told his grandson:
(You’ve probably heard this one.
It bears repeating—hearing—again.)
“There is a battle between two wolves inside us all.
One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, and resentment.
It is cynicism, apathy. It is hopelessness.
The other is good.
It is joy, love, humility, kindness, empathy, and bravery.
It is hope—hopefulness.”
The boy thought about it, and asked,
“Grandfather, which wolf wins?”
The old man quietly answered, “The one you feed.”

Most people don’t know it’s Advent.
Most probably don’t know what Advent is.
Most people don’t care.
And I’m okay with that.
I’m glad to be entering Advent with less a focus on Advent
and more of a focus on the awareness—
the growing awareness—
the grown-up awareness—
that the reality we feed wins.
And so we love.
And so we hope.

That’s Advent, my friends—
so-called or not—
the profound significance of what we do in the waiting.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Acts 3:1-7
One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer,
at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth
was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple
called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms
from those entering the temple.
When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple,
he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John,
and said, ‘Look at us.’
And he fixed his attention on them,
expecting to receive something from them.
But Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold,
but what I have I give you;
in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’
And he took him by the right hand and raised him up;
and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.


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