Monday, December 24, 2012

"Christmas Comes"

“Christmas Comes” by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood – December 24, 2012
Sermon Text: Luke 2: 1-20

“In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”

In these days, a decree comes from the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles reminding me that I should renew my license plates for another year. Dutifully, I attempt to log on to the BMV website to pay to have the privilege of legally driving my car for another year. Of course, I only do this once a year and I always forget my login credentials.[1] After about thirty minutes of trying to figure the system out, I sigh. It probably would have been easier to just write a check and stick it in the mail. Maybe next year I'll remember my login. Better yet, maybe next year I'll remember to just get out an envelope and a stamp.

After the license plate renewal, there are other things to tend to – other bills to pay, Christmas presents to wrap, lunches to pack for school, an e-mail to a friend who is having a difficult week, library books to be found and put in the car for their safe return, a kitchen table still messy with the remnants of dinner.

Tasks finally completed, I drag my weary soul up to bed and I notice the lights on our Christmas tree.

We have them on a timer so we don’t have to worry about turning them on and off. But, I think to myself, maybe next year we’ll skip the timer. Maybe I’d like to have the task of turning them on and off. Maybe if I took the time to take care of the tree, I would notice it more. Or maybe it would just turn into another thing on a very long to do list.

I wonder if Mary and Joseph knew their firstborn son was almost ready to make his debut when they were dragging their weary souls to Bethlehem. I wonder if they were expecting the Advent of Christ when all they were doing was following the rules, going to Bethlehem to pay their taxes.

There is a beautiful children’s picture book called The Nativity. It has the King James text of Luke’s gospel set to sweet illustrations by Julie Vivas. In it, the Angel Gabriel wears floppy, untied combat books which I find endearing. But one of my favorite things is this: the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary for the Annunciation of Christ while she is standing outside hanging her laundry out to dry.

Just going through her to do list. Checking things off. Probably thinking about all the tasks she needs to get done before lunch. When, BAM! Out of nowhere, an angel.

I don’t know about you, but I could really use an angel or two intruding on my life right now. Boots or bare feet – I’m not picky. But I could really use a break from the hum drum monotony of days that all seem to have to do lists that never get completed.

The things that do seem to break through and shake me to my core are tidings of bad news, not good. A world filled with violence. Friends struggling with life-altering illnesses and events. The death of a longtime church member. News of politicians who can’t seem to get along to save their lives. And, in the last week, argument upon argument about gun control. Speculation about the best ways to save our society from the wrath of ourselves. All of this and it’s 50 degrees outside one day and then thundersnowing the next which makes me weary as I remember all the damage we are doing to our earthly home each day.

Send me an angel, Lord. I need someone to break through the bad news. I need tidings of comfort and great joy.

And then, earlier this week, in a twenty-minute phone call with a friend, the angel showed up.

I was worrying aloud that I’d never find time to get ready for Christmas. We’ve been dealing with sickness upon sickness in our household lately – which is just par for the course with two children under the age of three, I suppose – leaving us all exhausted. I admitted to my friend that I wasn’t feeling very Christmassy this year and was really struggling to get my head in the game for Christmas week.

I don’t know if she was wearing floppy old work boots, but she was definitely carrying tidings of comfort and joy when she gently reminded me, “Sounds like you’ve already found some good news to share on Christmas Eve.”

Incredulous that she could find any good news in my whining and moaning, I said, “Good news? What?”

And she said, “The good news is that Jesus is born again each Christmas, whether we are ready or not.”

And there it is. Christmas comes – ready or not.

We who languish in to do lists that never seem to end will see the dawn of Christ. We who spend too much time absorbing horrific images on the news will see the reign of God birthed in a stable. We who feel like we’re on a freight train barreling towards some unknown destination will find ourselves stopped in our tracks by this Christmas.

An angel comes to us and says, “Behold, you will find him lying in a manger.” And suddenly the sanctuary will be filled with a multitude of the heavenly host singing, “Glory to God in the highest! And on earth, peace.”

Ready or not, Christmas is here.

The to do lists will need to be turned over and saved for another day because God comes in the form of an infant child. A nobody born to nobodies in a noplace. Born to a couple of kids who weren’t even married yet, traveling to Bethlehem to file some paperwork with the government. Going through the motions. Caught by surprise when the time for the birth drew near. And then suddenly, Emmanuel. God with us. Ready or not, Christmas is here.

The bad news of our world will be drowned out by the Good News of our God.

Perhaps Max Lucado said it best last week when he wrote a prayer in response to the violence in Connecticut. Lucado prayed, “Your world seems a bit darker this Christmas. But you were born in the dark, right? You came at night. The shepherds were nightshift workers. The Wise Men followed a star. Your first cries were heard in the shadows. To see your face, Mary and Joseph needed a candle flame. It was dark. Dark with Herod's jealousy. Dark with Roman oppression. Dark with poverty. Dark with violence.”

Mary and Joseph knew a few things about darkness and violence. The shepherds were no stranger to oppression and fear. And yet, in the midst of a time of great fear and anxiety, God showed up.

And God bless those shepherds – they paid attention. Just doing their stuff, watching sheep, and when an angel came with life-altering news, they paid attention. They packed up their gear and took off to Bethlehem. Risking ridicule, or at the very least, a serious waste of gas money, they took a chance to went to see the thing that had taken place.

They tuned off the 24-hour-news-cycle and put their attention in another place. They reminded themselves that their work could wait for a few hours and they took a break. They paid attention when the angel showed up and they were open to the Advent of Good News.

Christmas comes. Ready or not.

Perhaps you have prepared yourself quite well for this silent night. You’ve lit your Advent candles. You’ve stilled your heart and made room for the Christ Child to be born anew in our world. If so? Christmas comes.

Perhaps you’ve spent the last month partying like crazy. Office parties. Gift exchanges. Black Friday sales. Christmas trimmings. A beautiful tree. A hearth decked out with stockings. Christmas cards mailed on time. If so? Christmas comes.

Perhaps you’ve done little to prepare yourself. Your life has continued relatively uninterrupted by the Advent of the Season. You’ve had your nose to the grindstone – wrapping up tasks at work, caring for those you love, taking pleasures in the joy of curling up with a book by the fire, planning diligently for the year ahead. If so? Christmas comes.

Christmas comes to all because Christ does not need us to be ready.

Just as God does not need us to invite God into our schools by a schoolwide prayer, God does not need to be invited into our hearts to be present. God is already fully present everywhere.  Christ is born again this day and every day, like it or not. There is no way to “systematically remove” God from anywhere.[2] There is no way to deny the reality of Christ in our midst. It just is.

Christmas comes no matter what. It’s up to us how to respond. Mary could have simply laughed at that Angel in funny-looking boots when he interrupted her laundry day. But she didn’t.

The shepherds could have ignored the angel who interrupted their work in the fields. They could have written him off as a hallucination. But they didn’t.

And we get to choose, too. The to lists will always be there. The bad news will probably never stop screaming at us from our TVs, our computers, our smartphones. We can ignore the Advent of Christ. We can turn our attention to other places because there will always be things ready and willing to drown out the faint flutter of an angel’s wings.

This is the part of the sermon where you’re expecting me to tell you to stop what you’re doing and pay attention. This is where I’m supposed to tell us to all just quiet ourselves for just one night and really focus on the Birth of Christ.

And I suppose I could do that. I could.

But for tonight, I am just going to rest in this good news instead: Christmas comes, no matter what we do or don’t do.

There is nothing we can do to negate the arrival of God in our lives. There is nothing we can do to shut God out of anyplace. There is nothing we can do to deny the reality that God is in our midst. This night and every night.

Christmas comes.

[1] After I published this sermon, I received a very helpful and friendly e-mail from Dennis L. Rosebrough, Deputy Commisioner for External Affairs for the Indiana BMW. He told me that you can actually log on without having to remember your password. There’s a big red button on the homepage! I just didn’t see it. Now I know for next year! Additionally, when I originally delivered this sermon, I made a comment about having to pay an online convenience fee. I must have confused the BMV process with some other online process, because Mr. Rosebrough tells me there is no online convenience fee. I apologize for my mistake.
[2] Mike Huckabee said this week that the shootings in Connecticut happened because we have “systematically removed” God from our schools. If you have not yet read Rachel Held Evans’ recent blog post in response to what Mike Huckabee said, you must.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

"Winnowing Ain't All Bad"

Sermon Text: Luke 3: 7-18

They came to John seeking good news. Seeking baptism. Salvation. John the Baptist. In the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord.

A people who lived in dark times – surely we can identify with them. And we come to John as they came to John – seeking the good news. John speaks of the wrath to come, but we come today wondering how to flee from the wrath at hand.

John greets them with an insult – calling them a brood of vipers. He warns them that they are being watched to see if their trees produce fruit. He gives them the impression that they are bad people – people who have done many bad things.

So these crowds – the crowds who have come to see John prepare the way of the Lord – ask the next logical question, “What then should we do?”

What should we do if what you’re saying is true? If we are bad people and the children of bad people, what should we do?

Now, I have to take issue with some of what John is saying here. First of all, it’s not my personal pastoral style to call people names. Even though John has effectively scared these people into listening to what he has to say and even though what he has to say is, ultimately, good news – I’m not a fan of motivating people with fear. Fear begets fear.

In spite of John’s name-calling, I don’t believe God creates bad people. In spite of Friday’s events in Connecticut, I don’t believe God creates bad people. God creates people who make choices – many good, many bad, and some incomprehensibly evil. In spite of the choices we make, and for reasons I don’t fully undrstand, God loves us.

And although John seems to believe God is watching closely to see if the trees of humanity bear fruit, I don’t think God is sitting up in heaven somewhere with a sticker chart. God’s love is unconditional. God has dreams for what our world can be, but even when we fall way short of the mark, God’s love continues. God does not cut down trees that fail to produce fruit. God continues to water trees, send fresh sunlight to those trees, and send kind people to prune the trees. God never loses hope that all trees can produce delicious fruit, given the right conditions.

So, John and I are not exactly on the same page here in terms of what we believe to be true about God. You may or may not be in agreement with him either – and that’s okay. We can still engage with the text and find good news in it.

What John does next is simple and brilliant. He talks to the different people who have gathered to be baptized – average Joes and Janes, tax collectors, soldiers – and gives them concrete advice on how to live as children of the light in the midst of some very dark times. He tells those who have two coats that they must share with those who have none. He tells tax collectors to be honest and fair in their dealings with money. And he advises the soldiers to use their authority for good, not for evil.

These answers must have satisfied the crowds because they were immediately abuzz. People started to wonder aloud if John might be the Messiah, not just the one who points the way to the Messiah. But John quickly set them straight, reminding them that he was here to baptize with water but there was another coming who was greater than he. John goes back to the agrarian imagery again, stating that the Messiah would be the one who would go to the threshing floor to separate the good grain from the unusable grain and that he would burn off the chaff in an unquenchable fire.

Wait – what? Unquenchable fire? That makes me nervous. I always tend to automatically assume any talk about unquenchable fire is somehow directly linked to hellfire and brimstone. So let’s take a second and look at this image of Jesus winnowing the wheat.

John’s metaphor here is that Jesus is a laborer, preparing the wheat for use. Back before farmers used machinery to prepare wheat, they did it manually, with the help of animals. They would gather the wheat on the threshing floor – a large outdoor paved area located near a barn. They would use livestock to walk on the grain and separate the grain from the stalks and to begin to loosen the chaff from the wheat berries. After the grain was separated, the farmer would winnow it to remove the chaff from the berry entirely. This was why the threshing floors were outside. The typical method was to use the breeze to help blow the lightweight chaff away from the useable grain. Sometimes this was as simple as throwing the grain and chaff into the air by using a winnowing fork or fan to lift the wheat off the ground. The chaff would blow away and the wheat berries would land back on the floor. [1]  If you had a big bulk of chaff left around, you would probably burn it just to get rid of it.

Many of us are familiar with this separating the wheat from the chaff imagery, right? And I think the typical assumption is that there are good people and bad people and God is going to somehow separate them from each other and burn off the bad folks.

But that’s not how wheat works. Wheat is all one thing. Every grain of wheat has a berry that is useful for humans and animals. And every grain of wheat has an outer skin – a chaff that has to come off before the grain can be used.

Sounds a little bit like a lot of people I know. We are all a great mix of bad and good. And we all need help to allow the best parts of ourselves to shine through.

I’m not saying it’s fun to be thrashed about – and please notice something in the words of John – Jesus is not even the one doing the threshing. Instead, Jesus comes along after the threshing to pick the grain up off the floor and winnow it. Jesus lovingly sets aside the good parts of the wheat to be used and what happens to the bad stuff? It disappears – burned up in a fire that is unquenchable, always available – never to be spoken of again.

“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

That’s the end of this passage. Most commentators I read this week were shocked by this ending to the passage. Good news? This is good news? Hellfire and brimstone and Jesus coming to separate the goats from the sheep? Well, no. Not exactly. That’s not really what this passage is about.

What this passage is about is John empowering everyone present – even those who were not typically thought of as “religious types” – to thresh themselves out and make themselves useful. And if that ain’t good news, friends, I don’t know what is.

To be told that we are all of us able to slough off our flaky parts and find meaning in our lives and work? To be told that we, everyday Janes and Joes, can bring about the reign of God by sharing? To be told that we, despised wealthy ones, can live into the Way of Christ by dealing fairly and honestly with our money? To be told that we, strong and powerful ones with authority, can show God’s love to the world by using our authority for good and not for wrong?

And, after a week like this one, in the face of senseless violence when we feel so helpless, to be led into the possibility of collectively redeeming the world by simply allowing our rough parts to be blown away on the wind of the Spirit?

That’ll preach, John. That. Will. Preach.

If this was the only thing we could take away from this passage it would be enough. To know that in the mist of heavy times, we are empowered to do good and that the gentle arms of Christ will lead us? That’s enough. But there is more.

Because John is not only inviting us to see the ways we can bring out the good in ourselves, John is also inviting us to baptism. In many cultures, baptism or a ritual washing, is a final step in a long process of becoming a part of a group. To be baptized is to join a family and to say, “These are my people. I belong to this family.”

Traditionally, Christians think of themselves as joining the family of all Christians when they are baptized, and this is true. But I also think baptism calls us back to remember that we are, first and foremost, a part of the human family. All of it – not just the Christians parts of it.

We are all a part of the human family, but sometimes we forget to live that way. God knows, we in this nation are guilty of this. We rush about from place to place, our heads stuck in our screens, sometimes scarcely noticing the humanity around us – let alone actually making the effort to enhance our connection to others. And then we wonder why we have an epidemic of gun violence. We live in a place and time where it is countercultural to remember our connections to each other.

We forget that we are all related. We divide ourselves off into nuclear families. We cling so tightly to our socioeconomic status, our race, our gender, our political views, our hobbies, our religion, our whatever that we forget we are really all related. But Dr. King said it best when he said “we are all caught in an inescapable network or mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.”[2]

And that’s part of what John is inviting us to remember. When he talks to the people he tells them to treat those they encounter as if they were a part of the same family. He says to them, “Just give them your coat. Don’t expect it back. You wouldn’t expect your sister to return your coat to you, right?” I think John would have been standing up and cheering to see the IU students who gathered outside our church at 5:30am during finals week this past Tuesday to distribute coats and gloves and scarves to our guests at the interfaith winter shelter.

John tells us to remember that we’re all a part of the human family. Those of us who have authority are supposed to use it for good, not evil. In the midst of all the bad news in the media, did you hear about Officer Lawrence DePrimo of the NYPD? A few weeks ago, he was out walking his beat and used $75 of his own money to buy a pair of sturdy boots for a man experiencing homelessness.[3] DePrimo didn’t know he was going to be photographed and that the picture of him bending down to put the boots on the man’s cold feet would go viral on the internet. He wasn’t doing it to get credit. He did it because he remembered that we’re all a part of the human family. He did it because he knew that, to care for another person is to slough off a bit of your own chaff. He did it because he knew that it feels good to be useful. It feels good to remember your connection to another human being.

And in the midst of these dark days, on this third Sunday of Advent, we light the pink candle. The candle of Joy. It seems almost laughable to speak of joy right now, but as my dear friend and colleague the Rev. Jennifer Mills-Knutsen is saying from her church’s pulpit this morning, “How dare any preacher or prophet let us think for one moment that God’s promised joy risks being snuffed out by any evil this world could ever display.”

The people came to John seeking a word of salvation just as we come to this place seeking a healing balm. We are all of us wilderness wanderers and we come to John for the good news.

He does not disappoint. John’s good news for us this day is this: In the face of the great evil, there is not a one of us who is useless. When the news of the day makes us notice our own chaff - when we feel consumed by feelings of fear, anger, grief. When we wonder how we can ever make ourselves useful in this broken, broken world, Jesus the Good Farmer comes to us with his winnowing fork.

After we have been threshed about by the violence of this world, the Christ lifts us off the cold, hard ground and winnows us gently. Let the winds of God’s healing breath blow on all of us and let us be useful in the world.

[1] With thanks to and Wikipedia articles on “threshing floor” and “winnowing.”

Sunday, December 2, 2012


Sermon Text: Luke 21: 25-36

If you were a fly on the wall of the Wood household at about 8:00 every night, you were have the opportunity to observe some really bizarre parenting. Our almost-three-year-old has started complaining mightily every night when it’s time to get ready for bed. This falls into the category of a developmental phase that I just KNEW was coming at some point but REALLY hoped would magically never happen to my child.

So the conversation most nights goes something like this:
Parent:             Okay, buddy. It’s time to head upstairs.
Child:              NOOOOOO! I don’t want to go upSTAAAAAAIIIIIIRRRRSSSSS!
Parent:             Oh, I know. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just stay downstairs all night long! What do you think we’d do down here? Would we sleep on the floor? Or maybe on top of the kitchen counter? Even better! Maybe we could go outside with a flashlight and play in the yard all night long, just looking around in the dark. Going upstairs is no fun. I wish we could play all night instead. Maybe when you’re grown up you can stay up all night long.

There is usually a lot of giggling happening by this point. We typically get a few more complaints out of him but he reluctantly gets ready to go to bed. Before we started doing this silly little fantasy tap dance we were saying things like, “Well, I’m sorry you’re upset, but we do have to go up now. I gave you a warning. We go upstairs every night. It’s important to sleep so we can feel rested.”

I had read in several books that if you just go with whatever you child really wants and make it into a big game, imagining wilder and crazier things with them, it will often alleviate their frustration. Somehow they feel heard and understood. I was very skeptical about trying this because my adult brain told me, “But if you say something like ‘let’s go outside with flashlights’ then he’ll just be even more angry that you can’t actually DO that, right?”

Nope. It doesn’t make him more angry. It calms him down. It’s astounding. I don’t pretend to really understand how it works, but when it comes to parenting I don’t really need to understand why something works. If it works, we keep doing it until it stops working. So we’re going with this whole fantasy thing.

Today’s passage from Luke takes us into the realm of fantasy, too. Last week I thought to myself, “Oh, good. Advent starts next week and we’re doing the Gospel of Luke this year, so that will be nice.”

But I had forgotten that Advent with the Gospel of Luke begins with a big apocalyptic bang. This is not a touchy feely text. Instead it’s filled with signs of the end times and warnings about tribulation.

Why on earth would the season of Advent begin with a text like this? Well, for starters, this is a text about waiting. And Advent is, of course, the season of waiting. Waiting for Christ to be born in our midst. Waiting for the strange warming that comes to our hearts when we greet the Christ child in the manger. Waiting for that kindling of hope that comes with the realization that God comes to us again this year in unexpected ways.

Apocalyptic texts like this one are all about waiting, too. Written to give hope to those cast out into the margins of society, apocalyptic is meant to strengthen people living in the midst of chaos. It asserts that there are unseen rules governing all of creation. It asserts that judgment is coming on those who live in ungodly ways. It promises that the poor and the least and the lost will one day be lifted up in glory.

David Lose, a preaching professor at Luther Seminary up in St. Paul, brings forward another reason this Luke passage is appropriate for the beginning of Advent. Lose says that in order to really grapple with this text “we should first and foremost admit that it will sound to most of our hearers – and, quite frankly, also to us (if we really listen to it) – as sheer fantasy.”[1]

Now, lest you think that calling a biblical text fantasy is heretical, hear him out. Here’s a long quote. I’ll let you know when it’s over:

Notice, however, that I didn’t say it’s not true, but rather that it’s fantasy – as in fantastical, beyond our experience, extraordinary, not of this world. And, I would argue, precisely because it is not of this world, because it is beyond our physical and material existence and experience, it has the power to redeem us. That is, I believe the Bible not because it tells me of things I have seen and know for myself but precisely because it describes a reality that stretches beyond the confines of my finite, mortal existence and therefore has the capacity to redeem me…and you…and this life and world we share.[2]

End quote.

Fantasy has the power to redeem us precisely because it is not of this world. I don’t understand how this works any more than I understand why spinning tall tales for my two year old helps him make peace with the idea of going to bed, but something about this rings deeply true for me.

As the nights grow longer and the days grow colder, my soul aches as I try to hold together all the things this season brings.

Cheerful holiday gatherings : tense interactions with those we are supposed to love best.

Hymns and prayers urging us to slow down and savor this time of waiting : a sense that December 25 will be here before we know it and there’s still so much to do.

Letters in the mail urging me to do my part to help those in need : catalogs begging me to buy my children more and more toys they don’t need.

News stories of violence in lands far and near, super storms, fiscal cliffs : the warm smile of a perfect stranger who opens the door for me at Target as I rush in out of the cold.

Being human means holding together all of these things.

Living fully into the season of Advent means letting go of much of the familiarity of the rest of the year. This season calls us into a unique time.

It’s a fantasyland, really. We crane our necks to witness the birth of a poor nobody child in a barn. We give beyond our means. We wait for the sound of hooves on our rooftop and leave out cookies for a jolly old elf who comes bearing gifts. It is a time unlike any other in the year.

Like fantasy, I think Advent has the power to redeem us precisely because it is not of this world. If we allow ourselves to live more fully into this fantasy time – to lose ourselves in the midst of the radical, life-giving promises of Advent – we will find ourselves changed.

I have some dear friends at Broadway United Methodist Church up in Indianapolis. At Broadway they have a saying, “Live as if the gospel were true.”

It doesn’t sound like much, right? I mean, surely, as Christians, we should be living as if the gospel were true.

I’m not here to tell you what I think your gospel should be. And, yes, I really do think we can each have our own. In fact, I think it’s one of the great quests of the Christian life to find your own gospel and proclaim it to the world. After all, we have four books that are titled “gospel” in our holy scriptures. That alone should tell us there is room for all kinds of good news in this world.

My gospel is constantly evolving, but the core of it is this - I believe the opening lines from the creed of the United Church of Canada, “We are not alone. We live in God’s world.”

We are not alone. To me, that is some of the best news I can imagine. We are not alone. On days when I am living as if that were true, I feel a little less despairing. I feel more loved. I feel stronger. And, in turn, I am able to be kinder. I am able to remember my connections with others. I am able to find more patience with the things that frustrate me. And in the face of deeply frightening situations, I am able to find a sense of peace, knowing that I am not alone.

And we live in God’s world. The beauty that I encounter belongs to God. The horror that I sometimes find still rests in God. There is nothing in this world that can be separated from the love to God. It all exists in God and God exists in all of it.

So what is your gospel? And do you live your life as if it is true? Don’t worry – I’m not asking you to answer that question right now.

What I am asking is that you consider yourself invited to live more fully into the fantasyland that is Advent.

As you hold together the highs and lows and wrongs and rights and darkness and light of this odd season, give yourself over to the fantasy of it all. Set aside some of your need for concrete answers and facts and rest in the beauty of asking why or how….and finding no answer. Seek out your gospel – whatever it may be – and live as if it were true.

Fantasy has the power to redeem us because it is not of this world.
Advent has the power to stir our souls because it is not ordinary time.
The gospel has the power to save precisely because it is incredible.

This Advent, may your imagination run wild and may you live as if the gospel is true.

[2] ibid.