Sunday, December 28, 2014

December 24 Sermon (Christmas Eve)

Luke 2:1-20
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “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.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The story of Christmas, the real story of Christmas, the one we read in the weeks leading up to this day, the one Hannah read this evening . . . it’s really a story that stands on its own. It doesn’t need embellishment. It doesn’t need flowery language or a rousing sermon to bring it to life, which is a good thing because, like the rest of you, the run-up to Christmas has just about killed me once again this year and I’m not sure I have a rousing sermon in me. But besides all that, you didn’t come to hear a rousing sermon. You came to hear the story. It stands on its own. It’s powerful in its own right, because it is the story of how it is that we came to be the children of God.
This is our story, and it is wonderful, but I don’t know about you so I will just speak for myself here, sometimes it feels like it is just a story. Not always—there are certainly times that God feels as close to me as my own breath—but there are other times, too. Times when God feels distant, when I wonder what the point of all of it is. I hope this is not a shock to you, that sometimes life feels a little hopeless, but you know it as well as I do. North Korean hackers, religious extremists, athletes who beat their wives, violence in the streets of Missouri and New York and Los Angeles and in our own neighborhoods here in Atlanta, heartache and pain and struggle and all the rest of that which comes with being human, not to mention trying to spend the holidays with family without losing your ever-loving mind. I don’t need to tell you that there’s a lot of hopelessness out there. You feel it just like I feel it.
And honestly, it’s that hopelessness that makes this story so moving for me: because I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think what I am about to say is absolutely true: there is nothing the world needs as much as it needs hope. There is nothing in such short supply as hope. And this is the message of Christmas: that God so loved us that God was born in a stable, a barn, among the animals, among the smells of life, simply because god wanted to be with us; because god wanted to save us; because God wanted to give us hope. Hope isn’t a political slogan. It’s not just something to paint on a piece of driftwood and put over the doorpost in the beach house. Hope is real. It is powerful. It is God’s purpose: to love us. To give us hope. TO promise us that the worst thing is never the last thing.
The writer and theologian Frederick Buechner says it this way: Christmas is not just Scrooge waking up the next morning a changed man. It is not just the spirit of giving abroad in the land with a white beard and reindeer. It is not just the most famous birthday of them all and not just the annual reaffirmation of "Peace on Earth" that it is often reduced to so that people of many faiths or no faith can exchange Christmas cards without a qualm. On the contrary, if you do not hear in the message of Christmas something that must strike some as blasphemy and others as sheer fantasy, the chances are you have not heard the message for what it is. Emmanuel is the message in a nutshell, which is Hebrew for "God with us."
God with us. I need to hear this. I need to be reminded of this when everything around me seems hopeless. I need to remember that Christmas isn’t just a story. It’s a reality. It is real. Christmas didn’t just happen. Jesus wasn’t just born and that was it. Christmas happens. Jesus continues to be born in all kinds of places.
I think of those manger times in my own life, when I’ve been sent on a journey and need nothing more than a place to lay my head, let along a place to give birth, only to discover that there is no room at the inn. I think of those times when the only place to go is the manger out back, to bed down in a place that is nothing like what I expected. Have you had any of those times in your life: when you ended up in the kind of place you never thought you’d be, only to be reminded that God isn’t born in the maternity ward, that God doesn’t come when everything is perfect, but when it seems like all hope is lost? I mean, this is the story of Christmas: for Jesus’s homeland was occupied, his people were subjugated, nothing was as it should be. And yet that is where the birth happened.
I think of those manger times when it seemed like I was as far away from God as we are from this story, all of two thousand years, only to discover Christmas was happening right there and then. I remember the funeral I did for a teenager who had overdosed, how I had absolutely no idea what to say to speak life into that situation, and how it was that nothing I said did any good, but how the family took comfort in the words of scripture from Romans 8: that nothing, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. I’m not saying that everything was ok after that. I’m just saying that on what I am sure was the worst day of their lives, they rediscovered hope. Christmas happened that day: not a Hallmark Christmas, but a powerful one.
Or I think about the woman we met in Mozambique, the last woman left of her age in that community, who talked about all she had seen, all the incredible ordeals she’d dealt with: a husband who slept around and infected her with a deadly disease, hunger that nearly killed her more than once, and how she’d found, in entering a relationship with God through her local United Methodist Church, a group of people who so cared for her as a human that they spent millions of dollars—millions!—on public health initiatives, on defeating disease--by doing the very thing we’ll be doing here in a few minutes, as we dedicate our gifts to the Christ child and give half the money to our efforts to completely eradicate malaria. It only takes $10 to save a life. We can do that—we must do that—if we want to create space for Christ to be born, if we want to continue to help people like the woman I met in Mozambique to experience Christmas, to discover hope.
Let me end this way. I want to share the most profound experience of hope I’ve had in quite some time. I don’t always share this kind of personal stuff in sermons, but it’s Christmas.
It wasn’t a year-and-a-half ago that the Bishop sent me to pastor a church in North Decatur, Georgia that had seen some tough times. I don’t want to dwell on that, just like I don’t think it’s helpful to wallow in the bad stuff, but neither do I think it is helpful to pretend that tough things don’t happen. The church had seen some tough times. There were 94 people here my first Sunday, including all the kids, which I am pretty sure consisted of Luke and Hadley Ayers and my daughter Emmaline. I did so well that first Sunday with the 94 people that on my second Sunday, there were 81.
You know, you enter that kind of situation and you don’t know how to respond. You want to have hope, you really do, but unless you live with your head in the clouds, you know it isn’t that easy. Pain is real. Heartache is real.
But it just so happened that God had other plans for this place, and God had other plans from me, because I have to tell you I have learned more about hope from a year and a half with you people than I did in the first 30 years of my life. You have to have hope to trudge forward, to not get stuck in those tough times like a boot in thick mud. You have to have hope to say things like, “you know, I’m not sure about that idea, but let’s try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.” You have to have hope to believe that God is doing a new thing, even when there are so many messages out there arguing that the church is dying, that we should hang it up now, that nobody cares about loving God, about welcoming all kinds of people into God’s house, about serving those who most need us. We’ve seen more than fifty people join the church this year. That’s Christmas, folks. And because of your hope and God’s birth here among us, I find myself more excited about the next years in the life of North Decatur United Methodist Church than anything I’ve ever been involved with. And it is all about hope.

Look. This isn’t just a love letter. I guess it is that, but this Christmas, here’s what I can’t get over. If God, in God’s mischievous way, comes to us at Christmas in a manger, can you imagine what God can do with a church? My God, what wonder lies ahead, what incredible things God has left to do, what hope we have been given, as God has shown up to be born in church of all places. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, December 8, 2014

December 7 Sermon: Spend Less

Isaiah 40:1-11
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lordshall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord Godcomes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
We are in the second week of the Advent season, which is supposed to be the season of expectation that the church observes in the weeks before our celebration of Jesus’s birth, but it seems that most everybody is already into full-on Christmas. I was reading a blog post the this week from a United Methodist pastor who was in a coffee shop just the other day!, eavesdropping on a spirited conversation among eight people who, to a person, were already sick of Christmas. They said things like:
“I am so glad my kids are finally grown so I don’t have to watch those insipid kiddy shows like Rudolph and Charlie Brown!”
“I hate the crowds, all the garish decorations — and the music.  I will vomit if I hear Bing Crosby or Nat King Cole one more time.”
“It must be hell to be Muslim or Jewish in the United States in December.”
“December!  I saw Christmas decorations up at Halloween!”
Now, this is all interesting to me for two reasons, besides the fact that I happen to like Charlie Brown, thank you very much. As a professional religious person, I’m particularly concerned this time of year about the kinds of things that keep people from experiencing a proper Christmas, and we’re going to spend some time this morning talking about that problem, because it is a real problem. If Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus two thousand years ago in a manger, just as it is about Jesus being born once again in your heart, we’ve missed the forest for the Christmas trees, and in the interest of preparing the way for Jesus’s birth by spending lots of money and being run ragged as we dash between Christmas parties, we’ve all been made miserable.
I mean, this is the time of year that the church ends up being its crankiest. I don’t ever seen church members as stressed out as I do this time of year, and it’s almost a tragedy, really, because this is supposed to be a time to pause, to celebrate, to remember. And we get so busy, so swept up in recreating memories from yesteryear that have been painted so much rosier over the passage of time that it is literally impossible to meet our own expectations, never mind the fact that many of us are also busy attempting to create memories for our children and grandchildren that they won’t be able to recreate down the road, either. And so we all end up disappointed. We get so stuck wondering what is wrong with us that we can’t seem to get to a place where we actually experience Christmas.
But there’s another reason that the conversation about seeing Christmas decorations at Halloween or whatever is interesting to me, and it is that—as you may have heard me say before—I am not immune from the impulse of stretching Christmas as far as it will stretch. In fact, the joke around my house growing up was that it wasn’t Christmas at the Rushings if you weren’t confusing the trick-or-treaters. I love Christmas. I love getting ready for Christmas. I love Christmas decorations and Christmas cookies and Christmas presents and Christmas cookies and Christmas china and Christmas cookies. I hope you will come to the parsonage this Saturday for our Christmas open house, because we’ve decorated the place to the hilt, and there is at least a slight possibility that there will be some Christmas cookies left for you. The preparation is part of the fun. I want to affirm that. I love getting ready for Christmas.
The problem comes when the preparation becomes so much that what you end up doesn’t look like Christmas at all. It doesn’t look like the birth of Christ so much as it looks like the spirit of Christmas threw up all over your living room. At some point, the preparations blind you to what Christmas is, and that’s not to say that the preparations are bad. It’s just to say that if we are not careful, they can distract us from the truth of Christmas, which is that God so loved us that Christ was born in a stable, outside, among animals, laid in a trough to keep warm, that he understood what it meant to be poor and marginalized, that whosoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.
“Prepare the way of the Lord,” says the prophet Isaiah. “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
This is what we are preparing for: not the Ghost of Christmas past, but the coming of God into a broken world. The birth of a savior: someone to save us from our rampant sin and our inability to purely love.
I realize that this puts more pressure on the hanging of the garland, the stringing of lights, and that more pressure is the last thing we need in the season. And yet, while the garland is nice, while the tree and the presents and the cookies are nice, they are not what Isaiah is talking about. They are not what John the Baptist is talking about when he says that he has come to be the voice crying out in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” John the Baptist wasn’t talking about spending your life savings at Walmart when he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. You might even say that God came to save us from the kinds of things we get obsessed with in this season. Repentance, forgiveness, are about letting things go, the waters of baptism are about washing away, about letting things go, removing obstacles to love, not buying more things, but clearing a path.
I mean, I don’t know if you have ever had the chance to actually, literally clear a path, as in cut brush and make a path, but it’s not easy work. Maybe you remember that the second President Bush used to get flack for going out to blaze trails and clear brush when he needed to clear his mind, but never from me—it’s good, mind-clearing work! There is something about clearing a path that helps to clear your mind: something about cutting through the brush and plants and trees to make a path. And maybe this sounds weird to you, but when I am having a rough day in the office, I usually look out the window and daydream about clearing brush.
I think it is significant that John the Baptist didn’t talk about buying anything to get ready for Jesus. He didn’t talk about decorating or anything like that. He talked about clearing the way, cutting a path, literally removing things that stood between humanity and the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here we are spending and spending and spending, going into debt in order to somehow honor the birth of Jesus, and in this season as we participate in the Advent Conspiracy, as we attempt to spend less, what we are told to do in scripture is to clear, to remove, to pluck. (…)
All of this reminds me of one of my favorite early church fathers, who we know as the Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. That’s not on the test, so don’t worry about writing his name down, but we call him the Pseudo-Dionysius because back in the late fifth century when he was doing his writing, he used the pen name of Dionysius the Areopagite, a character in the book of Acts who was converted by the apostle Paul five hundred years prior. So he’s not actually the Dionysius. He’s the Pseudo-Dionysius. Sort of like a cover band.
And the Pseudo-Dionysius talks about the ways in which we know God, and I don’t want to get too philosophical here, but I think maybe this might be helpful. Specifically, he talks about the via negativa, the negative way we know God, and here is what he means.
Every time we talk about who God is, we use human language, and this is good, because it just so happens this is the only language we have. And so we talk about how God is loving, and just, and merciful, and powerful, and all the rest. These are good things. But at some point, our language not being strong enough to contain God’s attributes, we actually distract ourselves from the nature of God’s being.
So think of it this way. Picture a clock with God at the top, at 12, and as we go along, hour by hour, we add another word describing God. So we talk about God as Father, and that gets us to 1 o clock, and we talk about God as omnipotent, and that gets us to 2, and God as gracious to get us to 3, and so on until we get to six o clock, and suddenly even though God is at the top, we’ve actually ended up at the bottom, at 6, which is as far away from 12 as you can possibly get.
You see, in the interest of putting language to the nature of God, we’ve actually in some sense gotten further away from who God is, because even though we can say God is good, God’s goodness is much larger than our finite human understanding of that term. We may talk about God as Father, but there are ways in which God acts as mother, as well. So these are good things, but because our language, what we say, doesn’t do justice to the wideness of God’s mercy and power and grace, we’re in some ways actually getting further away from God the more we say.
This is where the Pseudo-Dionysius and the via negativa, the negative way, come in. What he says, in essence, is that as you continue to go around the clock, you pluck up words and remove them, because they don’t do justice to who God is. Just like we tack words onto God in order to describe God, so to ought we remove the words sometimes and acknowledge that they are insufficient.
And so as you go along the clock face, to seven, and eight, and nine, you pluck words. You say, all right, perhaps God is Father in some ways, but that limits God’s power in others so I’m going to pull up that word. Perhaps God is omnipotent, but God doesn’t intervene all the time, so I’m going to pull up that word. It doesn’t mean God isn’t those things; it just means that the way in which God is those things is larger than the words we use to talk about them. And as you get to ten and eleven you keep pulling words until you have once again reached the top of the clock face, and, there being no words left, you simply sit in silent awe of the God who, in the final analysis is beyond description.
I don’t know if any of this makes sense, and even if it does, if it resonates. Maybe I’m just drawn to this sort of theology because I come across situations so often in ministry that are just absolutely beyond words. I mean, what do you say about the death of a child that will speak meaning into that moment? There is nothing to do but be silent, to wallow in the horrible reverence of such a tragedy. It helps me understand the poet who said that the only proper response to the death of a child is to roll over and play dead. And yet tragedy isn’t the only reason for this kind of silence. I mean, what do you say in response to such a generous gift like the church has received this week? There is nothing to say that will do justice to that kind of generosity. Only grateful silence.
I don’t know if any of this resonates with you. Maybe I’m just drawn to it because as a preacher, as a professional religious person, it feels like I’m completely out of words as I consider the ongoing racial issues we’ve seen boil over in recent days. I talked about this pretty extensively in last Sunday’s sermon, but when I watch a black man choked to death on camera for selling loose cigarettes, choked to death on camera, and then watch the white police officer who killed him not even face trial, I don’t have words. I saw that Matt Miofsky, pastor of the Gathering United Methodist Church in St. Louis and a person familiar to many of you, said on Twitter this week that “As a person who peddles words for a living, I am running out of them.” Perhaps this is the proper response, for sometimes words get in the way. Sometimes we get in the way.
And perhaps this is what John the Baptist was doing when he went into the wilderness to blaze a trail, to cut a path for the in-breaking of Jesus Christ. Perhaps this is what the prophet Isaiah meant when he says to prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight in the desert a highway for our God, to level the ground and make the rough places plain. You cannot do this important work of clearing until you are willing to set down your expectations, to spend less, to stop getting drawn up into the hype machine that is the Official 2014 Christmas Shopping Season. You cannot prepare a way until you are ready to remove some of those things that seem like they are helping you celebrate, but which, in actuality, are flimsy attempts to fill a void in your heart, for that kind of void is only properly filled by God.
Look. I’m about to sit down, but don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that buying presents is bad. We’ve bought too much for our kid this Christmas just like everybody. But I am asking this. At what point are we buying and buying and buying because we are scared of that silence? At what point are we working until there are decorations on the decorations, just so we don’t have to sit in wonder, in awe of the fact that God became human in order to save us from our sin? At what point are we just trying to distract ourselves from our inadequacies, our sin in the first place?
Or, put another way, don’t you think that by spending less this Christmas, you might actually be celebrating a Christmas much more like Jesus would want us to celebrate?

Monday, December 1, 2014

November 30 Sermon: Worship Fully

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

Isaiah 64:1-9
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Mark 13:24-37
“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
(This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
It is strange, I know, to come to church the Sunday after Thanksgiving and to see the halls decked and the garland strung and to hear scripture like that which we heard this morning—not gentle Jesus, meek and mild, not silent night, holy night, but a confession of sin by the prophet Isaiah, and a reading from the Gospel of Mark in which the Son of Man comes in clouds with great power and glory, and the angels are sent to gather God’s people from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. This is not the stuff carols are made of.
And yet, you know, with the all that has been going on this week as a result of the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, I sort of feel like this stuff fits. I’m not usually big on the Jesus-coming-with-power-and-Glory, God-breaking-through stuff in the Bible, because honestly, that’s just not what my life looks like. My life looks like quiet moments of grace, an act of forgiveness here, a bit of love there, an occasional minor miracle, maybe, but nothing like this. And, you know, usually, it’s enough, to feel like God is with me as I walk through a difficult time, to feel inspired to forgive, to feel God’s presence as we sing on Sunday morning as a diverse body of Christ.
But sometimes, it isn’t enough. Sometimes, it all just feels so overwhelming you want to pull the comforter over your head and go back to sleep until everything calms down, until the world goes away and you can get back to those quiet moments of grace. I suppose this is what Jesus is talking about when he says to keep awake, because what a privilege that is, to only be bothered when things start to spiral. Sure, we all have our stuff, we all have pain and heartache and the rest, but I’ll speak for myself here: my life isn’t that hard. I don’t fear for my life very often. I don’t wonder where my next meal is coming from or how I’m going to feed my kid. I don’t have the powers of empire breathing down my neck, threatening to kill me simply for what I look like or what I believe.
I am talking, of course, of what it was like to be among the original hearers of this passage in the Gospel of Mark. As best as we can tell, this book was written sometime between 66 and 70AD, at least thirty years after the death of Jesus, during the time of the emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome and the time of the First Jewish-Roman War. This was a revolt against the Romans by the Jews, who had been subjugated, a war which ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the killing and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Jews. If ever there were a time and a people who needed God to come in power and glory, this was it, and this was them. Think of it: now, in these days, we have two thousand years of Christian history to rely on, to hold us up in difficult times, but those first believers were only thirty years out, just freshmen in the grand scheme of things, and they saw their fellow believers and their family and friends killed, slayed in battle or, under emperor Nero, tortured and publicly killed in what today we would call horrendous acts of terrorism.
These are the conditions that the Gospels were written under. It is important to always, always remember that when we read of the birth of Christ we are not reading of any other birth, detached from the history and the culture of the Jews. The birth of Christ was powerful. It created hope from nothing, deliverance from nothing. It rescued a people who were living under incredible persecution. This is the setting for Christmas: not Black Friday, not post-Thanksgiving-nap, but squalor. Destruction. Torture. Death.
I don’t mean to take the sweetness away from Advent and Christmas; I just want us to realize that Christmas doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in a context; everything happens in a context. And the context for Jesus’s birth was not a peaceful one. There were difficult events everywhere. You understand why the author of Isaiah 64 says, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence.” You start to understand why the hearers of Mark’s Gospel would so desperately hang on to that promise from Jesus, the promise of his return, and cling so closely to this words that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
In the midst of that kind of suffering, you hold onto anything you can. And so they did. They held onto what seemed like an awfully clear promise, that before any of his followers died, Jesus would return to right every wrong and dry every tear, to deliver them from oppression. If they would just wait, Jesus would return.
And so they waited. And they waited. But justice did not come. And they began to die, one at a time, until it happened faster and faster and still, the promise went unfulfilled. Here they had been promised that justice would come down like mighty waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, but there was only more oppression, more war, more death.
You know, it has been an interesting week to think about this dynamic of a promise so desperately needed and yet unfulfilled. It reminds me of a country that promises freedom and yet included within its founding documents the idea that some people were only worth three-fifths of a human. It reminds me of a movement that promised equal rights for all, but which is not finished.
I remember first hearing about Ferguson, Missouri back in August when Michael Brown was shot and killed following an argument with a police officer, and what I mostly remember at first was that I didn’t think too much of it. You know, I guess, from my perspective, one ought not argue with police officers. That seems pretty easy.
It was only when I started listening to my African-American friends and colleagues that I started to pay close attention, and when I did, I heard people I dearly loved and cared for who were saying things that just didn’t resonate with me, that did not make much sense to me, and yet it seemed like I was hearing much of the same message again and again: Ferguson matters. What has happened is important, because the dynamics involved are larger than this one incident, larger than the security footage that showed Michael Brown before he was killed, larger than this one deal. At some point, when such a large group of people says versions of the same thing, you can either choose to ignore what they are saying and stick with what you know, or you can decide that you actually don’t know everything, that your perspective is not the only one, and you can choose to listen.
And so I want to acknowledge the problems with the fact that I am a white person speaking about this, because I am not someone who has been discriminated against because of my skin. In fact, in all honesty, I’d rather not be preaching about this stuff at all. I know that when I talk about controversial issues from the pulpit, it upsets some people. I know some people think that a preacher should never, ever talk about anything that could possibly be considered political. And yet when I read about Jesus coming with power and glory to deliver a people, I come to the conclusion that Jesus is political, and to be faithful is to listen and respond, even when it makes me, even when it makes us uncomfortable.
I want to acknowledge one more thing, which is that we are a reasonably multicultural congregation. You don’t find a lot of churches that have the kind of diversity we have, and much of the reason for this is that it is not easy to be a diverse body. It is much easier to discuss racially charged topics in a room where you know that everybody is going to agree with you. And yet this stuff is so very important, because if we believe that a) all people, no matter their color, are children of God, and b) a large group of people finds itself on the receiving end of prejudice, all of us—all of us—have a responsibility to listen, to process, and respond. I can’t just say, “oh, it’s all an overreaction,” just because I don’t understand what it is like to be black. It may be my first response, but it isn’t a particularly Christian response, because if I read anything about how we are to treat one another in the Bible, it is that we are all family, and when one part suffers, we are all implicated. Maybe you don’t understand what it is like to experience that kind of oppression. But so what? Since when did we start thinking that understanding had to come before love?
I may not understand what it is like to face that kind of racism, but I am so grateful for those who have told their stories this week. I read the story of a black comedian who talked about the way he intentionally thinks about every single move he makes when he walks into a convenience store, just in case something goes wrong and people are looking for someone to blame. I read about mothers of black sons who have new worries about releasing their sons into the world; I (reed) read about and listen to black men—some of whom are very close friends of mine, people who I deeply admire and respect and hold in great esteem for the brave ways they face the world and speak truth in love—I’ve heard some of them talk about being absolutely terrified in the wake of the grand jury’s decision. Terrified.
We can distract ourselves by only talking about the looting and rioting, which of course is evil. Of course it is wrong. But friends, if we don’t take seriously the terror of our sisters and brothers in Christ, the problem isn’t with terrified ones. It is with the rest of us. The numbers are clear: black men are seven times as likely as white men to spend time in prison, three times as likely to be shot by law enforcement, two and a half times as likely to be sentenced to death. Here in Georgia, non-Hispanic blacks make up 31% of the population but are 58% of the incarcerated population. People of color are more likely than whites to see jail time for identical crimes, are more likely than whites to be sent to adult prison for crimes committed as juveniles, have a much higher arrest rate for drug use, despite being no more likely to sell or use illegal drugs than whites, and receive, on average, prison sentences that are 10% longer than whites for the exact same crimes. Friends, if we don’t look at the dynamics involved and see a clear problem—not a police problem, per se, but an all of us problem—we aren’t looking! This is the very definition of oppression: the exercise of authority and power in an unjust manner.
I’ll be honest, when I look at the news and think about the size of this problem, I don’t know what to do. It just all seems so overwhelming, so intractable, so . . .  hopeless. And yet hopelessness is precisely the environment Jesus was born into. This is who Jesus is, and the kind of world Jesus has come to redeem.
Jesus does not come in a sterile hospital in the maternity ward. He comes in the muck and the mess. He isn’t born in a Christmas card, in some idealized version of the story, on the kind of Christmas we wish we could have. He was born in the real world, where we still deal with racism, where we engage in relationships across racial and socioeconomic lines, where we still have struggles and problems and you can’t even go to church to get away from it all. That’s where Jesus is born, and thank goodness, because that is where we live.
In the final analysis, this is what it means to worship fully: to acknowledge that our hope does not come from just from human progress. It doesn’t come from movements, divorced from the work of God. No, our hope comes from the Lord, who created Heaven and earth and who promises us that we will never be left alone. This isn’t to say, as some as argued, that we ought not work so that all people may experience that love. It doesn’t mean, as some narrow corners of the church have said, that we ought to leave this up to God, as if it is God’s problem, as if we are devoid of any responsibility.
To worship fully is to actively wait in the promise of hope, even when its fulfilment is delayed longer than we wish, longer than we were promised. To worship fully is to work while we wait, to do the work of Christmas, and allow Jesus to be born in the kinds of places that Jesus is always born: in difficult circumstances, among intractable problems, in oppression and hopelessness. It is in this context that Jesus comes in power and glory, and thanks be to God for that.
Let me just say this. This is all so heartbreaking and complex that I don’t even know what to tell you to do. The dynamics of racism and distrust and oppression seem so much larger than any one of us can deal with, let alone sum up in a sermon. I don’t even understand all of it, to be honest.
I don’t have the answer to the festering wounds of racism, of hate, of fear, but if Jesus is any guide, can I suggest that at least part of the answer may be to keep awake so that we may hear the voice of the oppressed, for it was among the oppressed that Jesus was born? Can I suggest that this Christmas, you allow the God of the oppressed to enter the shabby stable of your heart, even if—and maybe especially if—it seems like a place so barren that only farm animals would go there to bed and feed?
For we read in scripture that in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then, then we will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. And thanks be to God. Amen.