The Joy of This Day

Thursday – Dec. 24, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 2:1-20

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Those days…….those two words carry a lot of weight. Those days    They conjure up so many memories. Some we think back on them with fondness, and they warm us like a thick blanket on a cold evening. We refer to them as the good old days, like those days when we were young and didn’t have a care in the world and we played outside for hours and hours losing track of time. Or those days we spent helping out our grandma and grandpa with special chores around the house or farm. Or those days when our brother or sister or friend spent hours with us planning our next big adventure.

But sometimes those days are looked back on with a heavy sadness, like those days, when things seemed better than they are now, and we long for that time again. Or like those days when we spent so much time with that special person – maybe a relative or a spouse or a friend – and our life was just filled with so much joy and now they’re gone leaving us with an empty space. Or those days, when we went through that terrible tragedy, but somehow we managed to get through it.

Those days….they stir up deep emotions within us. That’s one of the things that brings us back to worship here tonight. We hear the words, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” and immediately we are taken back to the first time we heard that story, the story of the first Christmas.

We gather tonight to hear this familiar story. It’s a story we’ve heard over and over again. Yet, like most beloved stories we never grow tired of hearing it. But do we just gather tonight to hear a story that we know so well, or is there something else that draws us here this night? Is there something else we are looking for this evening? Something that we hope to experience? Is it even possible to hear and experience this story as if for the first time?

If your name is Imogene, Claude, Ralph, Leroy, Ollie, and Gladys Herdman the answer is most definitely yes. These are the six delinquent children from the fictional book, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, which starts off by telling us what happened in those days. It begins by saying the Herdmans were the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied, stole, smoked cigars, swore, and hit little kids. Then to everyone’s horror they went to church for the first time after being told that the church offered snacks. And despite protests from other church members, they were given roles in the Sunday school’s Christmas play. When the Herdmans heard the Christmas story about Herod who wanted to kill the baby Jesus, well….they wanted to re-name it Revenge at Bethlehem, and what happened after that was unforgettable! If you haven’t seen this play, or movie or read the book, I encourage it highly. I re-lived this wonderful story when I saw the play recently that two of our members were in. It made me wonder, “What would it be like if we could hear and experience this familiar story as if it were the first time?” What if we heard this broadcast on the news:

“In those days a decree went out from Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, and all the local governors that the entire world should be registered because registering meant keeping track of us so we could pay more taxes. Everyone has to make travel arrangements to leave work and go to our place of birth. For some people this will mean traveling very far away. Men, women, and children need to leave the comforts of their homes and daily routines in order to comply with a new government ruling.” Maybe if we heard that, it would get our attention. Because those days would not just refer to generations ago, but to our own lives. We’d see that those days filled with census taking and taxes, power struggles and political scapegoating, poverty and homelessness, are not so far in the past. Those days could be written about the times we are living in now. Those days, when people are frightened about so many things – poverty, unemployment, terrorism, sickness, and death – speak of the human condition throughout the ages.

The story of an unwed pregnant teenage mother, a couple traveling from town to town looking for a place to stay where no one will ridicule them because of their situation, a baby born in a place far from a cozy warm house, and evil and jealous leaders trying to destroy a child or anything that threatens them, are all situations that could easily take place at any time in history. Situations like this happen every day. Some make the news and others sadly do not. So why do we come tonight to hear what may seem to some as another common occurrence? What makes this story in Luke’s gospel so different? What makes us stop and sit for a while and hear this story again?

It’s the words spoken to us by the angels that bring us here tonight. “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 day. This day is different than all the rest. This day overpowers all the fear of those days. This day something spectacular and miraculous has happened. This day a Savior, Jesus the Christ, our Messiah, has come to save us. This day our Savior has come to say that all the hurts and pains and suffering of those days do not control our lives any more. This day God has seen and heard the cries of all people and done something about them. This day we are delivered from those painful memories that want to rule our lives. This day we have been given a new beginning, a new hope, a new promise that the One we have been waiting to save us is finally here and will never leave us.

And that “good news of great joy is for all people1” Like the Herdmans in the play, the Best Christmas Pageant Ever, God’s promise of love, grace, and salvation is not only for those we think deserve it, but for all of us, who may feel overlooked, unwanted, and undeserving. The good news of great joy came first to the lowliest of people – shepherds or herdsmen – sleeping out in the fields taking care of their shape. No one is too insignificant in the eyes of God. And no place is too remote that God cannot reach us.

This day, God has reached down from the heavens and delivered to us a Savior. A Savior who will take all the pain and emptiness of those days, and replace it with the joy of this day. This day our salvation has come. This day God has broken into the world. This day Our Light has come, the Prince of Peace, and that is a story we can tell over and over again. Amen!

 

 

 

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News Worth Singing About

Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 1:39-55

We’re almost there. Our advent journey is almost over. In just a few more days we will celebrate the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ. But hold on….it’s still a few more days away. Our Advent journey is not over and that means we have to wait just a little longer. For many people that’s good news because there are still so many preparations to be made before the big celebration. People are still busy shopping – or just beginning their shopping. There’s packages to wrap, food to prepare, houses to clean, and the anxiety is beginning to increase with each day, and for those who are grieving any kind of loss the closer to Christmas, the anxieties are heightened even more. We’re racing faster and faster and forgetting that Advent is about slowing down and savoring the journey. We’ve forgotten over the years that there are twelve days of Christmas, which don’t begin prior to December 25th, but start on the 25th and end on Jan. 6th, the day of Epiphany. In some countries like Italy, children don’t receive their presents until Epiphany when the wise men brought the gifts to the baby Jesus.

But most of us don’t want to wait for presents or anything else. We drive fast, and talk fast. We’ve got fast food, and fast internet. We want our prayers answered right away and many want our worship services to be as short as possible. People are just too busy to “stop and smell the roses” and therefore Advent is a season that is hard for people to grasp. We’re all so used to living in the future, or the past, that we can’t appreciate the present for the gift that it is, until something so unexpected and profound happens that bam….it turns our world upside down.

And that’s exactly what happened to Mary and Elizabeth in our story from Luke’s gospel today. Mary receives unbelievable news from the angel that she is going to be the mother of God’s son! Elizabeth can’t believe that Mary went to visit her and share the great news! The baby inside Elizabeth jumped for joy! And Mary sings a beautiful, yet powerful song in the midst of all this! Yes, that’s what I said. In the midst of all this unbelievable news that two insignificant women received, Mary sings. She sings about how wonderful God is not only to her, but to everyone for all generations to come. She sings about how God is going to turn everything upside down. She sings about how God is going to finally help all those lowly and marginalized people and raise them up. She sings about how God is going to save everyone according to the promises God made generations ago. In the midst of all the chaos, and uncertainty, and unbelievable news, Mary sings. That’s not the first thing most of us would do when we get unbelievable news is it?

Yet Mary shows us what it means to be a faithful disciple. We’ve all received unbelievable news. Sometimes it’s great news and we do feel like singing. Other times it’s devastating news and singing is the last thing we want to do. But Rev. David Lose, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, says that singing is an act of resistance and that’s not the way we usually think of singing. He points out how slaves to worship God but also as an act of protest to those who enslaved them. He tells the story about the protesters in Leipzig who gathered together every Monday evening by candlelight around St. Nikolai church – the church where Bach composed so many of his cantatas – to pray and sing for the Berlin Wall to finally come down. Over two months their numbers grew from a little more than a thousand people to more than three hundred thousand, over half the citizens of the city, singing songs of hope and protest and justice, until their song shook the powers of their nation and changed the world. (Later, when someone asked one of the officers of the Stasi, the East German secret police, why they did not crush this protest like they had so many others, the officer replied, “We had no contingency plan for song.”!)”

Singing is more than just a way to express emotions. It’s more than just melodies and harmonies. Singing is a powerful force that can change people’s hearts and change the world. Singing is a brave and courage act and one that is more powerful than the violence that we hear and see going on around us. And you don’t have to think you sing good in order to sing. So today my sermon is a shorter one to give us time to worship God with our voice – to stand up against the darkness and bravely sing as an act of resistance. I’m going to ask you to get your blue hymnals and turn to song 781 – My Life Flows On in Endless Song – and sing it with me. As you do listen to the words. It’s been said that singing is praying twice. As the season of Advent draws to its close and we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus and we await his second coming, keep on singing. No matter what circumstance you find yourself in, keep on singing, because God’s promises are true. Keep on singing because God loves us and will never leave us. And that’s news worth singing about! Amen!

 

 

 

The Peace of God

Sunday, Dec. 12, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 3:7-18 & Phil. 4:4-7

 

Today is the third Sunday in Advent, traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday. It’s taken from the Latin word Gaudete, which means rejoice. Gaudete in Domino Semper – Rejoice in the Lord always. These words are taken from Philippians 4:7, and they encourage us not to worry about anything, but to pray, to take our concerns to God and the peace of God, which surpasses or transcends or goes beyond our understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. It sounds wonderful doesn’t it? To live a life that rejoices in the Lord always. But let’s be honest, most of us don’t feel like rejoicing all the time, especially when things are going wrong in our personal lives and in our society.

Three years ago tomorrow is the anniversary of the school shooting in Newtown, CT. At the time I was serving my internship in ND and I could barely believe my eyes and ears when I heard the news. I grew up right near where that happened. I had friends who lived in Newtown. I walked those quiet streets many times, and that news devastated me as it did so many others. Three years later, here we are hearing more and more school shootings, and other such tragedies. Gun violence has increased and people are afraid, which leads to even more violence. It hardly seems like we have anything to rejoice about does it? We long for joy. We long for peace, the kind of peace that we hear in Philippians that surpasses all understanding. But we’re looking for it in all the wrong places and things.

A few days ago as I was walking out of a small hardware store, an elderly gentlemen was walking out next to me. He looked to be about 75 or 80 and reminded me of my grandfather. In fact, he probably was somebody’s grandfather. We exchanged smiles and as he walked out of the store in front of me something fell out of his coat pocket and fell to the ground with a distinctive metal sound. I looked down, and for those few seconds I was frozen. The man quickly turned to pick up the black handgun and said, “that’s my piece.” He walked away and I couldn’t forget what he said all week, “that’s my piece.” While that’s what guns are often called, I couldn’t help but wonder, “ is that the kind of “peace” we really want?”

I’m not here to advocate for the destruction of all guns. I realize there are many hunters in this congregation and there is nothing wrong with that. But when we walk around arming ourselves out of fear, believing that weapons are going to bring us peace, safety, and security, we are deluding ourselves. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “the only thing to fear is fear itself.” Yet that is exactly what we as individuals, society, and a nation are doing. We are allowing fear to rule our lives. Many people today are listening to the popular voices of people who are telling them what and whom we should fear. They are advocating hate, and prejudice. They are vilifying innocent people.

That’s a temptation that plagued even the people that John the Baptist preached to generations ago. He said to one of the crowds, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Here they were coming to him to be baptized and yet they were afraid. They were listening to the voices of people who were telling them things that were contrary to God’s words of truth and justice. They were afraid, but John the Baptist said that God is able. God is able to raise up even stones to be faithful disciples because God is more powerful than anything we can try and wrap our minds around. God’s power surpasses what we can possibly comprehend. God’s power, God’s word is mightier than any force on earth.

Yet we, like the crowds that John the Baptist encountered, ask the same question, “What should we do?” “What should we do when there seems to be so much to fear? What should we do when everything seems to be falling apart? What should we do when there seems to be so much darkness surrounding us? We hear John’s voice speaking the word of God: Share what we have with others, be fair and not greedy with what we have, and be thankful for what God has blessed us with. John reminds us that we have been blessed with more than we realize and we can only see that if we keep our focus on the One for whom we wait in this Advent season our savior, Jesus the Christ.

We do that through remembering the gift of our baptism. For through those cleansing waters the guilt of our sins was taken away. We were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Through our baptism we were united with Christ and the question that John the Baptist continues to ask today is, “what difference does that make in your life? What difference does that make in my life?” As children of God, disciples of Christ, does the life we live bear witness to Christ? Is it evident in our actions that we are followers of Christ? Do we bear fruits worthy of repentance?

John is convicting us to take a close look at ourselves. And if we are honest, we know that the truth is that we do not always bear good fruits. Out of our fears we forget who we are and we don’t share what we have. We aren’t always thankful, but instead think of what we don’t have. We don’t always love our neighbors, but instead pass judgement on them. We lose our patience, our tempers, our way. We get lost in the darkness.

Mother Theresa new all about darkness. I recently saw the movie, The Letters, about the life of Mother Theresa, who heard God tell her to care for the poorest and most forgotten people in India. She left the safety of her cloistered life and lived among the poor showing them God’s love and compassion. Yet Mother Theresa experienced so much emotional and spiritual darkness. This was hard work and she often felt so alone. Yet, she kept on bearing good fruit by doing what God was calling her to do despite the heavy darkness she constantly felt. Many people here feel they are living under a heavy cloud of darkness and I have felt that darkness too, but God is able to work through that darkness and it does not need to stop us from witnessing the love of Christ to others.

That is the Good News that John reminds us of today. Our lives as Christians may not always be easy, but through our daily repentance – our daily turning back to God – they are lives that bear good fruit. What should we do? We are to turn around, turn back to God, and begin again. That is the gift of grace we received through the sacrament of baptism. Before you leave the sanctuary today I invite you to dip your hands in the baptismal font and pause and remember your baptism. Remember the promises that were made for you, that you made, and that God made. You are God’s child and God loves you. God loves you; pause and treasure that. Carry that with confidence.

We receive God’s gift of grace receive through the sacrament of Holy Communion. When you receive that gift today, when you hold Christ in your hand, pause and treasure that gift. Remember he died for you. He rose for you. And Christ will come again for you and for me. He will not abandon us; we have nothing to fear.

Through these gifts of grace we receive God’s gift of forgiveness and the promise that God is with us always. We can begin anew each day. In doing this we find reason to rejoice even in the midst of troubling times. Happiness relies on our situation, but joy is found in God. The joy found in God is what brings us true peace no matter what the circumstances. It is a peace that surpasses or transcends all understanding. As we continue our Advent journey to Bethlehem let us journey in the peace of God. The peace of God changes us and the peace of God can change the world. That kind of peace is reason to “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.” Amen.

A Wake-Up Call

Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 3:1-6
Psalmody Luke 1:68-70 – Song of Zechariah

 

“Repent! Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Repent! “ These words do not make us feel warm and fuzzy. They do not make us want to run over to the person saying them and say “absolutely! You’re right! I’ve really messed things up. I’ve been rude, and cruel, and hurtful to other people. And I have put God last on my list instead of first. I’ve got a lot to be sorry about. I’m repenting. I’m turning around. I’m going to change my ways starting right now! Thanks for the wake-up call!”

No, if we hear someone tell us something like that we just look at them and think they are crazy. And it doesn’t matter if they are dressed poorly or in the fanciest of clothes. Most of us don’t want anyone telling us what to do or worse, what we are doing wrong. That kind of talk just makes us angry and resentful. What we do is our business and nobody else’s. And we think our relationship with God is our business and no one else’s either.

That’s human nature and that hasn’t changed over the centuries. When we think of John the Baptist today we envision a scruffy man wearing ragged clothes, fur, eating locusts – a real picture of what crazy is all about! And that’s not because wearing clothes like that and eating that kind of cuisine is unacceptable today; it was unacceptable when he was alive too. John the Baptist was one of those individuals that you’d hear someone say, “God certainly broke the mold when he made him!” And that wouldn’t be said as a compliment. But it wasn’t just John’s look and eating habits that got him in trouble. It was his outspoken and outrageous behavior. He went around telling people they had to repent of their sins because the Messiah was coming. In ancient times and even today no one wants to be told they are guilty of anything. That kind of talk gets people into trouble. And it certainly got John the Baptist in trouble, for we later find out that it ended up costing John his life.

So what is so important about this odd looking, locust eating, bold person named John the Baptist? He is the messenger through which God chose to speak to others about the coming of Jesus Christ. You might ask yourself wouldn’t it have been better if God chose someone who stood out a little less? Maybe someone who said things in a less confrontational way? Someone who would tell people what they wanted to hear so everyone would like them?

That’s certainly the kind of leader people want. Look at the list of important people that Luke mentions in the beginning of his gospel reading today. He lists Emperor Tiberius, Governor Pontius Pilate, Herod the ruler of Galilee, Caiaphas, the high priest. They are all high on the list of influential and powerful people at that time. They were each responsible for making important decisions. And like most politicians they tell people what they want to hear in order to get what they want. (Some things don’t change over the centuries.) These individuals held a lot of power, but that doesn’t mean they used that power for good. If you listen again carefully to these names again, you will remember that these are the same people who gave the people what they wanted at the time – the crucifixion of Jesus.  Yes, these rulers all were influential in Jesus’ death.
It’s not mere coincidence that Luke mentions them here before our Christmas story. So why does he mention them? Because Luke wants to remind us of the kind of leaders God wants. While John the Baptist may have seemed crazy – he, unlike the other powerful and respected rulers of the time – spoke the truth. John was a messenger of God who always reveals the truth, a truth revealed in the most unusual of places and through the most unusual of people – like John the Baptist.

God has been sending messengers, prophets to prepare the way long before John the Baptist. In our first reading from Malachi we here that God was “sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” God spoke through the ancient prophets like Malachi, and Jeremiah, and Jonah, and Zechariah, and Moses …..and the messages they proclaimed were not well received either. No one wanted to be a prophet because being a prophet meant you were saying the things God wanted you to say and not the things you wanted to say or that people wanted to hear. But God sends prophets throughout the ages not to punish us, but to give us an opportunity to repent – to turn around from doing what we are currently doing that is wrong – and turn back to God who loves us.

The prophets and messengers through whom God speaks continue to do so today. They did not end with the stories we read in the Bible. They continue today through people of all walks of life. God speaks through children, and senior citizens, mentally and physically handicapped, people who are our friends and neighbors, and yes, even people who look and act a little crazy or who may look threatening to us. God speaks through whomever God chooses in order to reach as many people as possible with the saving grace offered through Jesus Christ.

God wants to speak through each and every one of us. That happened yesterday as members of this congregation participated in the event Journey to Bethlehem. People of all ages experienced the Journey to Bethlehem first hand and saw and heard what the real meaning of Christmas is all about. In a society that is constantly bombarded by the message of commercialism, they heard God’s story of redemptive love. When the media fills us with images of violence, fear, chaos, and uncertainty, the Gospel story fills us with promises of hope, peace and love. That Gospel story is proclaimed through each and every one of us when we dare – like John the Baptist – to proclaim the truth and tell the story.

This Advent as we continue our Journey to Bethlehem, as we wait for the coming of the Savior, God gives us a wake-up call. God is telling us to get ready, to prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming. It’s a wake-up call to turn around – to repent – and to make room for God to work in and through us. There is a powerful, holy, and miraculous story to be told and we are the messengers that God has chosen to tell the story. Live it loud and live it proud! Amen!

A Promise of Peace

Sunday, November 15, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Mark 13:1-8

“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” These words from Jesus do not sound comforting at all. They weren’t the words the disciples wanted to hear. They weren’t the words that the community that Mark addressed was eager to hear since they were in the midst of war with the Roman Empire. They aren’t the words that people throughout the generations want to hear as well because these things are always taking place.

On Wednesday of this week our country celebrated Veteran’s Day – formerly known as Armistice Day. It’s a day set aside to honor the brave men and women who have or are serving our country to defend us from harm, protect us, and keep us safe. They know all about sacrifice. Many of our veterans have seen and experienced things that most people will never have to endure. They carry with them deep scars both physically and emotionally. And they and we pray for a day when wars will be a thing of the past. We pray for peace, but the words from Jesus in Mark’s gospel say that these wars will continue and they do.

Yet in the midst of all these wars, and famines, and natural disasters Jesus tells us not to be alarmed. He wants us to be at peace and yet we ask ourselves, “How can we be at peace when all these things are happening around us? How can we be at peace when every time we see or hear the news there is another tragedy?” The war in the Middle East continues, terrorist attacks now in France, increasing school shootings, earthquakes, hurricanes, mass flooding are escalating. It seems like the sky is falling. Many people try and tell us these are signs that the end is near. Yet no one knows when that will be and Jesus warns us to beware of those who pretend to know and lead us astray.

But it’s hard not to let these things get to us. It’s human nature. It goes against everything we hold dear. Men and women aren’t supposed to have to go to war and risk their lives let alone lose them. The people we love are not supposed to die early. We aren’t supposed to lose our jobs. It’s not supposed to be this hard. Yet we know it is. And Jesus is telling us that because of sin life here on earth is hard. It’s not easy and it’s hard not to focus on these things. So where is the good news?

The good news is that we have a rock that unlike the stones of the temple buildings that fell in the first century due to war, and unlike the stones of the buildings that are destroyed today due to war; this rock will never fail us. This rock- this security – is not something that can be found in possessions, or money, or success. Our rock, our security, is found in Jesus Christ. Everything and everyone else may promise to save us, but only God can do that. We can’t work our way to salvation. We can’t get there by trying to be perfect. When everything around us seems to be spinning out of control there is only one thing that will bring us peace and that is keeping our eyes focused on Jesus who will show us the way because he is the way.

This doesn’t mean that there won’t be trials, and tragedies, and heartbreak. These things are part of the world we live in. But we don’t go through these things alone. God is with us. That is the promise that we have been given. And as Jesus’ disciples we must get this good news out, because there are so many who don’t know where to turn when things are falling apart. That’s why for the last few weeks members of our council and congregation have been giving temple talks about stewardship of time, talents, and money. We’re talking about money because our community cannot afford to lose this congregation. This church makes a difference in our community. Christ Lutheran Church is a beacon of hope where people can come and be refreshed by God’s word. This is a community of faith that shows people where true peace can be found. The money we give to this church is to continue the work of the early disciples in making Christ known to all people. All people need to hear that Jesus is the way to peace in a day when peace seems far away.

St. Paul in his letter to the Hebrews urges us to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” God has assured us through Jesus that we will be delivered, that evil will not have the final victory, that God’s kingdom will prevail. This is the good news that brings us hope and peace in the face of the horrors around us.

The well-known hymn, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, begins with the words “mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” In the face of the many tragedies we face and will face we must remember these words and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus who tells us not to be alarmed. Jesus’ promises are true. Jesus’ is the source of our peace.

. Let us encourage one another for God’s truth is surely marching on. Glory Hallelujah! Amen!