Wednesday, December 23, 2015

No Room for THEM!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 2nd Chapter

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.

There was no place for them in the inn.  I’d always assumed that there was no place for them in the inn because of this census registration thing and all the rooms at the Bethlehem Motel 6 and every other hotel in town were taken.  I’d always assumed that there was LITERALLY no room for them in the inn because every room was taken.  But the story doesn’t actually tell us why, really.  It COULD have been that every room was taken, but maybe it wasn’t that there was no room in the inn, but that there was no room for THEM in the inn.  For their KIND, there was no room.  They were different in lots of ways, after all.  

They were from AWAY.  They were poor.  They were unmarried and she was pregnant.  She was ready to give birth and that would mean a mess and extra laundry.  She was also a revolutionary.  She was.  In just the last chapter, she gave a passionate protest speech about overthrowing the powerful, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the wealthy away empty.  

So, was there no room in the inn?  Or was there no room for THEM in the inn?  Did they hear, “I’m sorry we’re fully booked for the night” or did they hear, “Go back to where you came from!?”  I think there’s probably no way we’ll ever know for sure, but regardless of whether there was PHYSICALLY no room in the inn or if there was no room for THEM in the inn, what happened that night had the same result.  

That night, God, the Creator of all that ever was, is now and of all that ever will be, decided to be born as a human in the same way that each and every one of us has been born.  God was born that night in the regular, messy, beautiful, painful, glorious, human way.  The Savior of World… God with us… was born as one of us regular folks… but God, the Creator of heaven and earth, was born without a place, without a home… like the carol says, “The Little Lord Jesus, no crib for his bed.”  He was born into the straw and the dirt and into everything else that’s found in a barn.  God came to the world and the world, basically, just didn’t notice.  

When Martin Luther preached a Christmas sermon on this text five hundred years ago he said to his congregation, “Many of you in this congregation think to yourselves:  “If only I had been there!  How quick I would have been to help the baby!  I would have even washed his dirty diapers!”  You say that NOW, because you know now who that baby was and how great Christ is, but if you had been there THEN, you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem.  Childish and silly thoughts are these!  Why don’t you do it now?  You have Christ in your neighbor.  You ought to serve your neighbor, for what you do to your neighbor in need, you do to the Lord Christ himself.”

The message of Christmas is that God has come into the world bringing light into our darkness, life into our death, healing into our brokenness… but the message of Christmas isn’t just that.  The message of Christmas is that God has brought that light, life and healing to the world in a very particular way.  God has brought, and is bringing, that light, life and healing from the bottom up.  God brings all that FIRST to those who, like he was, are unwelcome and unnoticed in the world.  THAT is where God shows up first… among those people from “away”… among THOSE folks who don’t fit what’s “proper” in society… among THOSE people who are relegated to the dung heap in the barn, demonized and marginalized and told to go back to where they came from.  

God in Christ did something amazing that first Christmas… God came among us, as one of us, and in coming as one of us has scooped us up into God’s infinite, unconditional love… and God in Christ has done that, and IS DOING THAT even now, starting at the bottom, with the lost, lonely, forgotten, frightened and hated first and then moves from there to embrace all of creation.  But a big part of the message of Christmas is that God in Christ starts with the ones for whom there is no place in the inn, and as followers of Jesus, that's where we're called to start as well.  May we remember that.  May we remember that God enters our world among the most gritty, forgotten, pushed aside and alienated people.  May we remember, when we encounter THOSE people, that those are God’s people… Christ’s people… and when we take time to notice them... when we offer up a space for them... when we make a place for them in our neighborhoods and our hearts, we do nothing less than make a place there for God.  Amen.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Scroogy McGrinchypants

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke the 1st Chapter

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

At this time of year, I’m known by my holiday nickname… Scroogy McGrinchypants.  In my mind, since Christmas the THIRD most holy day of the Christian year (after Easter and Pentecost) we should decorate and celebrate with just slightly less intensity than we decorate and celebrate for Pentecost.  You may be surprised to learn that I’ve never been able to sell that at home or church!  

But as every Grinch learns, you just can't keep Christmas from coming and at some point it can’t be held back any longer.  Something happens… a sign, even for those of us most Grinchy, that signals the turn into Christmas.  For stores and children it seems that Halloween is that sign.  Halloween costumes put away and Candy Corn on the clearance table… THAT is the sign that Christmas is coming!  For my wife, it’s hearing Vince Guaraldi’s Christmas music from Charlie Brown.  For her, THAT’s the sign.  For me, it’s hanging the greens at church.  From that point on, completely in spite of my usual Scroogy McGrinchypants self, the excitement and anticipation builds and builds until kids and adults and yes, even Pastor McGrinchypants can’t sit still any longer.  From the moment we see that sign, we begin to live our lives jumping around, ready for Christmas to happen.  

John the Baptist, while still in his mother’s womb, had that kind of excitement!  Way before he was even BORN, John was to that jumping-for-joy state of excitement!  Even the most aggressive retailers can only seem to pull off that excitement starting after Halloween, but here, John the Baptist had that excited level of anticipation for the coming of the birth of Jesus, months and months and months before that first Christmas would even arrive!

The even more extraordinary thing is that John isn’t excited for the toys, the food, the parties, eggnog, trees or lights.  John is excited, and excited to the point where he is jumping for joy, because GOD came into the room.  John isn’t jumping for joy months before Christmas for the presents with wrappings and bows… but for the PRESENCE... God with us.  It’s sad really, that the world’s focus on presents with bows leaves me less excited to celebrate God’s presence… God with us.  Because if there’s anything in this world worth exerting the energy and endangering the knees to actually jump for joy, it's God coming to enter the world to be with the likes of me and you!

And God has come for the likes of me and you.  Will Willamon says that if God is willing to get a poor, teenaged, unmarried girl pregnant and then have the audacity to call her blessed, THAT should tell us that this God will go to whatever lengths might be necessary to be with us.  If our God is willing to be born in this regular and very earthly way; is willing to be born to the poorest of the poor, into a scandalous family, then you and I can never make the mistake and say, “Jesus was not meant for the likes of me.” 

God has bent so low and so deep on purpose, so that every single bit of creation could be scooped up into God’s presence, explicitly including the likes of you and me!  Can you imagine being scooped up by God and held in God’s loving presence?  We adults don’t often allow ourselves to show that kind of joy, do we?  When’s the last time you literally jumped for joy?  My last time was at a Maine hockey game.  Sports may be the only time we jump for joy as adults and worse is that aversion to jumping for joy seems to have leaked into the church!  I’m not sure where it started, this idea that church should be a place where people are quiet, stoic and reserved.  Where did it come from, that being in the presence of God should be solely somber and proper?  That certainly wasn’t John’s reaction!  Here in this lesson, John literally does cartwheels in Elizabeth’s womb because he finds himself in the presence of Jesus!  “Well” you might say, “That was John as a child.”   But that’s not the only time Christ’s presence led to great joy!    

You can’t tell me that the mood of the crowd remained somber, with proper Victorian British reserve and Scandinavian stoicism when Jesus turned 180 gallons of water into REALLY good wine?!  You can’t tell me that the people remained calm and subdued when Jesus healed their blindness, cured their leprosy, cast out their demons or raised the dead!  You can’t tell me that after 5000 plus people were filled with delicious fish sandwiches with leftovers to spare, the crowd’s only reaction was to calmly dab the corners of their mouths with a perfectly pressed linen napkin!  NO!  The presence of Jesus… the presence of the ONE who scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty… THAT isn’t a QUIET affair!  It demands a LEAP from the oppression of the earth into the extravagant freedom of the heavens!  It demands we jump for joy!

John's jumping for JOY was the first earthly reaction to the presence of Christ.  Elizabeth's shouts of joy and thanksgiving were the next, and BOTH pointed the world to Christ’s presence… God with us!  But THAT was only the beginning.  John’s whole ministry was spent pointing to Jesus… telling the world THERE is the Lamb of God… THERE is your source of LIFE… THERE is the ONE who brings light into our darkness, JOY into our pain!  

But John and Elizabeth don’t JUST point us to Christ, they also serve as models for OUR ministry too, and not just the ministry of those of us in funny shirts either!  ALL of us are called to BE like John and Elizabeth, continually pointing to Jesus.  We too are called to use words and actions to tell and show our family, friends and neighbors, “THERE is the source of LIFE. THERE is the light that shines into your darkness no matter how deep your darkness might be.”   

We all, like Elizabeth and John, have been filled with the Holy Spirit in Baptism.  We all, live in the presence of Christ.  There at the Table each week we taste and see Christ’s presence most clearly and most reliably in the bread and the wine, but the truth of this story tells us that Christ comes to us… walks into our lives wherever we are, in whatever we’re doing, no matter who we are… God in Christ comes to us and with Christ present in our lives, we are transformed from death to life, from sadness to joy... how can we NOT just jump for joy!  So take your neighbor by the hand.  Even the Scroogy McGrinchyest neighbor you know, and point them to Christ!  Tell them, “THERE is Jesus, the light of the world!”  Show them with your love and compassion and your working for justice, that Jesus has come for them and for us all!  Then invite them to join you and jump for JOY!  Amen.