Friday, December 25, 2015

Changed by a Child - a Homily for Christmas Eve


            “Dear Max,
            Your mother and I don’t yet have the words to describe the hope you give us for the future. Your new life is full of promise…
            Like all parents, we want you to grow up in a world better than ours today.”
            These words begin a letter written earlier this month by the parents of a baby girl named Max, a child who has already changed them. The letter goes on to describe how life is different today than it was for her parents when it comes to health, poverty, technology and knowledge. Max’s parents then make a vow to play a vital role in improving life – not just for Max – but for children around the world.
            The parents then write, “As you begin the next generation of (our) family, we also begin the Chan Zuckerberg initiative to join people across the world to advance human potential and promote equality for all children in the next generation…We will give away 99% of our Facebook shares – currently about $45 billion – during our lives to advance this mission…We want to do what we can, working alongside many others.
            Love, Mom and Dad”
            The birth of Max is a game changer.
Max had been in this world barely long enough to catch her own breath when her parents realized they were called to play a role in helping a world of people keep their breath. Max’s birth birthed fresh hope, bold visions, extraordinary generosity, and deep retrospection in two parents whose gifts can now touch and transform the lives of thousands of people.
A tiny baby his father swaddled in a brown robe, dressing her up as a Star Wars Jedi last week has made a profound impact.
            “Your mother and I don’t yet have the words to describe the hope you give us for the future. Your new life is full of promise.”
I cannot help but wonder if the same words may have been pondered, penned or prayed in a borrowed barn in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago as the child who provides more hope than any child ever born on earth came to a young, unwed, poor mother, part of God’s plan to transform the world in ways that even $45 billion cannot buy.
We’ve gathered tonight as people who may not be expecting to see or hear anything new. People flock to churches all over the world on Christmas Eve in hopes of singing the same songs we sung last year, lighting the same small candles, and hearing the same words of scripture about a young family making a journey to pay their taxes only to find there is no room at the inn. Many of us know this story by heart. There are images of it in some of the Christmas cards currently stacked on our kitchen tables and in manger scenes we remove from their boxes every December, placing the Marys, Josephs, and baby Jesus’ on a shelf with a couple of cattle nearby if we purchased a deluxe set.
And while we may not expect anything unusual to happen this night, I’m convinced that God has another plan. The parent of this child wants everything to be different – changed – touched – transformed because of his Son named Jesus. This child is meant to be a game changer.
While some of you here may be able to recall moments in our nation’s history where people were acutely aware of the power of war, racism or a downward economy, I cannot recall a time when I proclaimed the good news on Christmas Eve while feeling the heavy, nearly paralyzing weight of our collective fear as a nation and world.
Uncertainty lingers in the form of unbridled gun violence. 
“Black Lives Matter” is now a mantra that is not spoken because of one particular incident but because of numerous incidents that tragically keep on occurring in cities across our nation.
Darkness fills a tiny country in the Middle East where archaeologists and scholars once flocked to see incredible ruins while pilgrims went to walk down a Damascus street where God caught up with Saul and transformed him into Paul, but where Syrians now flee in hopes of finding light and life in another land.
And you and I live with the reality that even a holiday party at a center for people with developmental disabilities is no longer off limits when it comes to terrorists and their tricks.
The rod of oppression is real whether it’s the awareness of how many people in our city have no place to call home or how the family who sat behind me at a downtown Cosi is no longer welcome by everyone since the mother and two of her daughters were wearing a hijab, making them known as Muslims in the same way the crosses around our necks mark us as Christians. But we are not the target of a presidential candidate who believe anyone professing faith in Allah may be a terrorist who must have every aspect of their background checked before they enter our country.
Is there anything we can do to stop the violence, the racism, the oppression, the terrorism, the madness?
A clergy colleague has felt a tugging on her heart recently, a sign that indicates God may be calling her to new places. She can articulate a call to do something about gun violence, and she keeps talking to different people about what role she might play. But she came into my office earlier this week to share how people are not sure there’s anything she can really do. We may be past the point of no return.
But what if the child whose birth we celebrate tonight assures us that nothing is past the point of no return – no person, no amount of violence, no amount of darkness, no amount of sadness, no amount of oppression, no amount of terrorism, no amount of burden no matter how heavy the burden might be because one has come who has increased our joy. A child has been born for us, a son given to us, and his name is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Jesus was brought into the world by a Father who knew his son could provide hope for the future.  This child’s life was full of promise! Prophets foretold how he would advance human potential and promote equality in a way that none of us can, no matter how gifted or resourced we might be.
What would it mean for us to lay our eyes on this child tonight as though we were seeing him for the very first time?
Imagine taking him into your arms, and allowing his beauty to take your breath away, getting a hold of your heart.
Imagine being convinced that he has been born into your life – a gift of God given to you.
A child disrupts every sense of order or schedule a family may hold.
What if this child is to do the same for us – to awaken us in the night – anytime we see pain that we can actually play a role in alleviating; to force us to feed someone who cannot feed him or herself; to push us to embrace someone who can experience healing by the power of being held by another; to tell someone we’re not going anywhere – that we’ll sit with them through the night until everything is okay again, until the scary thing that has entered our room is finally gone.
One of the greatest gifts offered by a child is that a child helps us see that life is no longer about us. Our priorities have to be placed aside as we care for a tiny person in our midst.
But that’s also the greatest gift of this child whose birth we celebrate tonight. Jesus teaches us how to give ourselves away more than any other person or thing can while helping us learn that the more we give ourselves to others, the more we experience life and light in the midst of darkness.
We may even hear the rod of oppression being broken with our own ears!
Will you allow his birth to change you, perhaps even transform you?
Will you allow a child to push you to give away some of what you’ve worked hard to amass – your time, your talent and your resources – because you now see how you are called to be a part of healing the brokenness of the world around you?
Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother and in his name all oppression shall cease.
Let it be so.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Boxes of Comparison

I was recently reintroduced to this box at the gym. It's not too intimidating of a picture, but seeing the real thing can cause my heart to beat faster, especially if my trainer is placing it on the floor in front of me. It's 20 inches high, and the invitation always starts with the same words. "You're going to place one foot on top and step up." These words are sometimes followed with, "while holding this kettle ball" or "and then lift your other knee straight up as high as you can before putting your foot back down on the floor."

It's an exercise that requires balance and determination. My legs haven't always been strong enough to pull my weight on top of the box, let alone get my other knee high in the air, too. 

But I did it yesterday. And, I was doing really well with my balance and form...until I started to watch what another woman was doing on a box a few feet away from mine. Her kettle bell was much larger than anything I'd taken on top of the box with me. And I started to get intimidated. I started to compare myself to her until I forced myself to stop and turn my body away from her so I could not see her anymore.

I spend a lot of time telling other people to live their story - to stop comparing themselves to others or yearning for talents and gifts other people have. But I still got caught up in the similar cycle of desire yesterday morning. 

And I'll need to work hard to avoid the trap of comparison today.

It's a day where countless colleagues are posting the schedules for their Christmas Eve services. The largest of our denomination's churches started celebrating Christmas Eve a few days ago in order to accommodate the masses who will flock to their spaces to sing, "Joy to the World." Another colleague who I don't even know posted a schedule of eight services scheduled for today, and he'll preach each one - in different locations around a city in the Midwest. I see these schedules and am suddenly reminded of my context. 

There may be more people showering in the church building this morning than worshippers in the sanctuary tonight. More than half of our congregation has gone "home" - a place far away from the city of Washington. Many restaurants will be closed around us. Traffic will be at it's best. I'll never forget one colleague's statement following his first Christmas Eve in a Washington church - "That was the most depressing thing ever." He was used to overflowing crowds instead of being in a place where people often go somewhere else for the holiday.

But I am filled with anticipation for the joy of preaching tonight. I'm utterly delighted with the words that have been crafted and will be ready to share. I cannot wait to light the candles, to offer an invitation to the table, to gather in the midst of a beautiful sanctuary with people who have come to receive the bread that has been prepared for them. My heart is beating faster as I think about the harp music that will play from the balcony, and images of children coming forward to learn the stories of Jesus, the bread that will be broken, the carols that will be sung.

I cannot imagine driving around a city in the state where I went to college in order to preach eight different times. That's not the box I've been called to stand on. So why would I even be thinking about that box?

What about you? How much time are you spending looking at someone else getting on their box instead of seizing the life you've been given? 

Come to think of it, I'm utterly delighted I got this body on top of those 20 inches in the first place.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Gift of Letting Go

My father recently delivered a half a dozen plastic bins that have been sitting in my mother's basement for 20 years. She has asked me when I would get them at least once a year for the past ten, but it took my dad delivering a piece of furniture over Thanksgiving to ensure that the transfer of belongings would actually take place.

We brought the bins inside one by one, and I untaped a few to allow my eyes to behold a homemade Cabbage Patch Doll created during a Christmas season when Wal-Mart shelves were barren, a large rag doll that used to sit in a rocking chair in my room, and a Fisher-Price ferris wheel whose appearance quickly revealed my age. These bins were the easier ones to open. They were quite delightful. 

But other bins brought memories I wasn't quite ready to relive.

While there were several plaques reminding me of first place wins in public speaking and writing contests, there were even more plaques with the words "second" or "third" engraved on top. While there were pictures of a high school best friend, there were diaries with pages that reminded me of how alone I often felt as a teenager. I regularly say you could not pay me to go back to high school - or perhaps even get me to a high school reunion today. But those boxes took me back in a way I had not experienced for years.

And I wonder. 

I wonder how many things we take with us that we should let go of all together. I wonder how many things we carefully pack and store away in case we want to look at them again someday. I wonder what's begging to instead be taken to the dumpster - the very place I took my high school yearbooks week before last.

We're in a season where so many people are separated from loved ones because they have allowed events of the past to be carried into the future. A family member hurt you years ago, forcing you to pack up the pain and carry it with you every year since. Memories of disappointing moments have been placed inside boxes that you have not been able to let go of yet. One person will prevent you from stepping inside a particular New Year's Eve party because she betrayed you years ago. And so you keep moving, but at a much slower pace, because it's hard to move forward when you're attached to so many chains. 

Howard Thurman, in his extraordinary book, The Mood of Christmas, offers an invitation to receive and give the gift of grace at Christmas. He suggests that if we want to experience the meaning of Christmas, then we need to seek reconciliation with any individual with whom we have "a ruptured or unhappy relationship." He writes, "During the year that is rapidly coming to a close, you have perhaps had many experiences with many kinds of people, those with whom you live, those with whom you work, or those with whom you play, and in the course of these going-ons there have been times when the relationships heightened and were thrown out of join, and a desert and a sea developed between you and someone else. And you were so busy with your own responsibilities, and perhaps so full of hostility yourselves, that there was no time to give to the business and the experience and the grace of reconciliation. So will you think about such a person, find a way by which you can restore a lost harmony, so that your Christmas gift to yourselves will be peace between you and someone else?" (page 47).

What would it look like for you to let go of whatever pain or resentment you're carrying? 

How might you let go of the pain, not by tossing it into a ten-foot high dumpster where it will be taken away once and for all like I did all my second place plaques and ridiculously painful journals, but by picking up the phone or writing a note or inviting someone for coffee...all in an effort to say, "I'm sorry. I'm ready to let go."

Tell me, what's locked away in your storage closet that you've been carrying too long?