On the first Sunday in December, we begin our celebration of Advent. On the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, we will rejoice in the great gift that is ours in Jesus Christ. To help us celebrate, we will be lighting the candles of the Advent wreath. The candles signify that Jesus is the Light of the World. The evergreens remind us that He is life and brings life to us. All these are arranged in a circle because life in Christ has no end. Each Sunday we will light an additional candle. Then on Christmas Eve, we will light all the candles, including the center one, the Christ candle. As we do, we will rejoice that Christ has come to us. He is Immanuel…God with us.
Advent music is comprised of songs full of theological depths, generally sung in a minor key, which are purposely composed to call us to reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ birth. Meanwhile, the secular songs of the season are holly, jolly Christmas carols that motivate shoppers but do not lend themselves to a deeper understanding of our Lord’s birth.
But, I figure that if a flesh and blood child born 2000 years ago can reveal the fullness of God’s glory, and if two millennia of churches filled with imperfect people can reflect God’s hope, love, joy and peace, then who’s to say that Frosty the Snowman or Silver Bells can’t teach us something about the true meaning of Christmas?
Which led to the sermon series I’ll be preaching during Advent, which is titled, Finding the Sacred in the Secular: What Christmas Songs That Have Nothing to do With Jesus Can Tell Us About the Lord’s Birth.
This is the Advent schedule of worship with sermon titles:
1st Sunday of Advent (Dec. 3) “Santa Claus is Coming to Town: John the Baptist Prepares People for the Messiah’s Arrival”
2nd Sunday of Advent (Dec. 10): “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and Other Unlikely Heroes of Christmas Eve”
3rd Sunday of Advent (Dec. 17): Crèche Service
Longest Night Service at 7 pm
4th Sunday of Advent (Dec. 24): “Home for the Holidays: Joseph and Mary Journey to Bethlehem.”
Christmas Eve Services of Lessons and Carols at 7 and 11 PM
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a blessed Advent!
Jesus had a knack for never being where you would expect to find him. It was an unnerving habit he seemed to have developed even before he was born. I mean, what could be more unexpected than a child who was conceived in the womb of a virgin.
Soon after Jesus was born, a paranoid King Herod sent soldiers to Bethlehem to get rid of him, because that’s where the ancient scriptures predicted the Messiah would be born. But Jesus and his parents were already long gone for Egypt by the time his would-be assassins rode into town looking for him.
When he was an adolescent, his mom and dad lost track of him while they were travelling from Jerusalem to Nazareth. After a few frantic days of searching they found him back in the Jerusalem Temple, astounding the adults and rabbis with his wisdom and knowledge.
As an adult, he always seemed to be found on the wrong side of the tracks, where he hung out sinners that no self-respecting rabbi would go near. Or with the lepers, the blind, the lame, and even the demon possessed. In other words, among the people who were considered to be forsaken by God. Occasionally, he kept company with Gentiles, those who were not members of God’s Covenant people. This insistence Jesus had for hanging out in places and with people where he supposedly didn’t belong made him a lot of enemies along the way. Finally, his enemies crucified him, a death sentence that the Romans used effectively to punish the worst criminals of all, and a form of public execution so horrific and humiliating that it was designed to deter other potential lawbreakers. Which meant a Cross was the last place anyone ever expected to look for the savior of humanity. And as hung there dying, who was at his side? Not any of the disciples who had insisted that they would give their lives for his, but two convicted thieves. Unlikely companions again. After they took his dead body down, they laid him in a tomb, and rolled a huge stone in front of the entrance. “There,” they told themselves, “that should hold him.”
There were a lot of things on Mary Magdalene’s mind when she went back to the tomb a few days later, but not finding Jesus there probably wasn’t one of them. Some things never change, though. The tomb was empty. And Jesus, who had been thoroughly dead, was soon making unexpected appearances to his disciples, in the land of the living. First, to Mary herself in the garden where he had been buried. Later that night, he appeared to the other disciples who were hiding out in the room where they had recently shared what they thought was their last meal with their Lord. Shortly after, Jesus showed up unexpectedly again on a beach, cooking breakfast for them.
A lot of time has passed since then, and you think that we would have learned by now. Learned that Jesus turns up where we least expect him to be. But I wonder if we don’t still do too much looking for Jesus in the wrong places. We could be missing him in the losses, disappointments and pains that we THINK we are going through alone. Maybe we’re overlooking his presence among the poor and marginalized people that he calls us to serve. Perhaps we are failing to see him standing beside the enemy he is urging us to forgive, or in the places within us where we are mercilessly critical and unforgiving to ourselves.
May this Easter bless you with the eyes to see the risen Jesus in the places where you would least expect him to be, and in the times when you need him most.
Grace and Peace,
Isn’t it about time we put that saying to rest? Because words do hurt. And underestimating the destructive power of words has a price. The language we use translates into concrete realities with all the attendant consequences. Bullying in schools creates despair that swallows young lives. Homophobic insults give rise to L.G.B.T. harassment. Racial slurs, sexist remarks, anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim comments become manifested in realities of discrimination and exclusion. Jesus never downplayed the gravity of hateful words. In the Sermon on the Mount, he equated the act of insulting a brother or sister with murdering them in one’s heart (Matthew 5:21-22.) Language that dehumanizes those who look, love, worship or think differently than us can also tempt some people to act out their emotions with violence. But words can also have a healing and reconciling power, too. Words that bring forth peace and justice. May we be careful that our mouths be filled only with the Godly speech that helps to build a better world for all. “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)
I leave you with this prayer, written by Joanna Harader:
God of justice and compassion,
God of Republicans and Democrats and Independents,
God of the poor and the 1% and the middle class,
in the heat of this election year
we pray for our nation, our churches, and ourselves.
In the midst of meanness and deception,
may our words be kind and true.
In the midst of loud speeches and harsh accusations,
may we listen well and try to understand.
May those who follow Jesus do the work of Jesus–
breaking down the dividing walls
speaking the truth in love
meeting together in the face of disagreements.
Holy, loving God, have mercy on your children. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
I used to know this guy who, whenever you asked him how it was going, would come back with the same response – “Every day is Christmas.” I still don’t know exactly what he meant by that. But, what I do know is that I wish every Christmas could be on a Sunday, like it was this year. It seemed like knowing many of us would be gathered to worship – not only on Christmas Eve, but also on Christmas morning – transformed the whole Advent Season. And, in many ways, it was a different Advent. Visits from Mary, Joseph, a Shepherd, and the Inn Keeper on separate Sundays helped transform those characters from
quasi-mythological figures into flesh and blood people caught up in a grand miracle, whose hopes and fears we could relate to in ways that made “Emmanuel: God With Us” come alive as perhaps never before.
Most years, our celebration of Christmas as a community of faith concludes on Christmas Eve. We light candles, sing Silent Night, then blow the candles out and go our separate ways. But, 2016 gifted us with a Sunday Christmas and the rare opportunity to celebrate the Savior’s birth in the light of day. If you were there that morning, you received a simple tea light that had been blessed during the service to take with you as you left. You were invited to bring the tea light to wherever you were going for your Christmas celebration and light it as a symbolic way of sharing the true light – and true Spirit – of Christmas, throughout your day and with whomever you gathered. After all, isn’t that what we are called to do? Not just on December 25th, but every day? To let the Light of Christ be born in us so that it enlightens our world? And if we do that, every day truly can be Christmas.
*If you go to the church Facebook page you will find a post with an image of a burning tea light and an invitation to share how and where you used your tea light on Christmas Day. Just enter your response as a comment to the post. I look forward to hearing from you about your experience.
Don’t forget there’s Worship for all ages
every Sunday at 9:30 in the summer.
Remember to mark your calendar that
Church School will begin on
Sunday, September 11 at 9:30.
There will be a staff orientation and dinner on
Thursday evening, September 8.
We’ve all heard that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
So when our dog Lexi first came to us from her foster home in
Tennessee, Sue and I signed her up for obedience training right
away. The trainer quickly impressed upon us the importance of several training principles, including repetition and consistency.
But just as important is context. If you train your dog in the same environment all the time it will think that the rules only apply
there and nowhere else. So it is critical to do training exercises in a variety of locations and situations. The same principle applies to
being part of a church. Our Christian identity is shaped by what we
do together as a church: worship, prayer, study and service. But do
we take what we learn in church into other contexts? Or do we fall
into believing that following Jesus’ teaching and example only
applies to what we do “in church”?
The New Testament Letter of James warns: “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror, for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” Being part of a church reminds us that we are to imitate Jesus by loving and serving others. But it is when we are physically apart from the church that we put what we have learned into action. Summer is the season where church attendance and activity typically decline, as many people are vacationing and travelling this time of year. But being “doers of the word” is not something from which we take a vacation.
That includes continuing to support the work of the church during the summer months by keeping the ministry of the church in your prayers and by remembering to maintain your financial support for the work of the church. Opportunities to live by the Spirit are waiting for us wherever we go. May you enjoy a safe and relaxing Summer. And may you learn to practice the same old tricks of following Jesus, in new contexts.
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these … you did it to me.’” Matthew, Chapter 25
As this verse clearly indicates, welcoming strangers is an indispensable part of Christian ministry. In fact, the welcome we provide to strangers is no less sacred than welcoming Jesus himself.
Our church sign greets people with the message that “All Are Welcome.” An important aspect of welcoming is accessibility. Handicap access in the rear of the church building, an elevator to transport people from one floor to another without the necessity of using stairs and, more recently, reserved parking for those who require only a short walk from car to church entrance, are all expressions of hospitality to folks with varying mobility issues. However, sometimes the best vantage point for determining how welcoming a church actually is comes not from the inside looking out, but from the perspective of an outsider’s first visit. Lately, there have been two incidents involving visitors to the church where guests unfamiliar with the building were confused by the presence of Handicap parking spaces near the office entrance where there is not handicap access. Based on the lessons of these incidents the Trustees and Deacons have been reevaluating our accessibility measures in order to avoid future confusion. Some of the proposed changes you might be seeing could include:
- A strategically placed sign to clearly direct people to the rear of the building for handicap access.
- A church member at the rear entrance to greet and assist visitors with operation of the elevator location of restrooms, and directions to the sanctuary.
- Replacement of the present Handicap Parking signs near the office entrance with signs that would reserve those spaces for people with limited mobility but not requiring a ramp or elevator to gain access to the building.
The goal of these adaptations is to be more efficient in our efforts at being welcoming to all – both church members and guests. And in doing that, to be welcoming to Jesus.
On March 12, Ceil Burgess, Nancy Sides, and I attended Super Saturday in Killingly, CT. For those who don’t know, Super Saturday is a day of dynamic worship and informative workshops on important topics of relevance to churches. This year, the keynote speaker was Rev. Traci Blackmon. Rev. Blackmon serves as the first woman pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri and as Acting Executive of UCC Justice and Witness Ministries. She was also appointed by President Obama to the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Traci preached a powerful sermon on the story of Moses “turning aside” to investigate the strange sight of a burning bush in the wilderness. It was only after he turned aside that he was able to hear God speak to him from the bush, and the rest, as they say, is history. She raised the question of what would have happened if Moses had not turned aside to approach the bush, but had kept going. How long had the bush been burning and how many others might have passed it by before Moses came along?
These are important questions for churches to consider. Congregations can become so preoccupied with institutional survival and “doing things the way we’ve always done it” that we overlook the burning bushes where God is trying to get our attention. Notice that Moses had to turn aside to encounter God in the burning bush. As disciples of Jesus we need to go out of our way too, if we want to discern God’s mission for our churches. In the case of this Super Saturday, turning aside meant a trip to Killingly. Sometimes it might just mean a redirection of our imagination.
Experiences like Super Saturday can be “burning bush” events, opening our eyes and ears to new inspirations, new directions, and new resources. It is my hope that in the future more people from our congregation will join in these opportunities to grow in our faith and in our ministries as God’s people.