Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas 1B -- December 28, 2014

The Real Wise Guys

Luke 2:22-40

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Many thanks to Pastor Donna and all of you terrific Community Church folks for allowing Emsworth U.P. Church to crash your after-Christmas gathering this morning.  I know that Pastor Donna appreciates the day off just as much as I will appreciate the day off next Sunday when our congregations join again to mark the celebration of Epiphany.  Christmas is not officially over until then, so I am not too late to wish you a very Merry Christmas.  Santa has come and gone, but Jesus’ birthday celebration continues for another week.  Thanks be to God!

And what a great day to be together, most particularly to witness the Sacrament of Holy Baptism with Mason and his family.  Thank you for the privilege of being here to celebrate the newest member of God’s family here at Community Church.

I do have to ask, however…did anyone notice if Mason's parents brought in a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons – maybe the cages are somewhere in the back.  Jean, are the birds hiding around here somewhere?

Well, whether or not they brought in a sacrificial gift, Mason’s parents have walked a well-worn path this morning.  The path of faithful parents carrying the treasure of their hearts into a holy space and dedicating a treasured son or daughter to God.  Just like Mary and Joseph in our reading this morning.  I didn’t know there would be a baptism this when I picked this text.  But it is a fitting one, don’t you think?

After he is born on Christmas, we do not hear much about Jesus’ childhood in Scripture, unfortunately.  We receive just three tiny glimpses in the Gospel of Luke.  First, Jesus’ circumcision is briefly mentioned in the two verses before the ones we just read.  Then, in this passage, his parents travel with him to Jerusalem for the purification rites and presentation of the child in the temple 40 days later.   After today’s text, we don’t see Jesus again in Luke until more than a decade later when he stays behind in the temple, scaring his mother half to death.

But this text today is a curious thing, isn’t it?  After all the hoopla of Christmas, with angels and annunciations and all manner of holy visitors proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, Mary and Joseph still make the journey to fulfill all the religious requirements for a firstborn male.  You would think the Son of God and his family might be exempt, right?  You would think that Jesus would be holy enough all on his own to not need the affirmation of the temple.  A lot of people have wondered the same thing about Jesus’ baptism, too.  Why would someone like Jesus, who was born without sin, have to be dedicated or baptized at all?

Perhaps this detail from Luke is here to remind us that this fully divine Jesus was also born fully human, into a particular time and place, and into a particular community of faith represented by the temple.  Perhaps we need to remember that Jesus was not born unto himself, to be God all by himself, but into a family to be raised by particular parents surrounded by other people, friends and relatives.  Perhaps, despite the scant scriptural detail, we need to remember that like every human baby before or since, the fully human Jesus could not raise himself.  Luke reminds us that it will take a village of faith to raise God’s son.  It takes a community to remind us who we are, and to whom we belong.

And the first people of the village to recognize Jesus are Simeon and Anna.  And unlike all the people we heard about on Christmas Eve, Simeon and Anna recognize who Jesus is without any of the heavenly host helping them out.  There are no angels in this story.   Only the two stalwarts of the temple, both of them getting way up there in years, but both of them blessed with the eyes of the prophets.  Simeon and Anna are often left out of our Christmas story, and they do not show up in our manger scenes, but if you ask me…Simeon and Anna are the real wise guys in this season.

Simeon is a paragon of the community’s hope.  For years Simeon had been waiting and hoping for the consolation of Israel, for the assurance that God had not forgotten the people waiting in darkness to see a great light.  Simeon is all about the hope that doesn’t dim with age or experience, but seems to grow stronger and stronger with each passing year.

Anna is the paragon of the community’s faithfulness.  Despite widowhood and the struggles that most certainly entailed, Anna fasts and prays day and night, staying deeply in relationship with God.  Anna is all about faithfulness that digs in its heels and hangs on through every storm, no matter what.

Both of these characters are not only wise, but also true pivot points in the story of Jesus.  Simeon and Anna take us out of the anticipation of Advent, the giddiness of Christmas, and into the hard work of Epiphany.  The hard work in which we try to keep our eyes open for the Christ that is here, dwelling among us, full of grace and truth, even when the Christmas star has dimmed and moved on.

And as we leave Christmas Day, the first thing we see in Luke is this poignant encounter. -- two exhausted young parents, in over their head, and two elderly people who have been waiting forever for this day.  In this moment, we see the family and the elders exchange gifts in honor of the baby in Mary’s arms.  Mary and Joseph receive the gift of knowing that despite the struggle of the last 40 days, they are not alone in facing the task before them.  They are surrounded by a community of faith who will help their child grow and become strong and be filled with wisdom.

And Simeon and Anna receive a glimpse of heaven.  Simeon and Anna see that God has kept God’s promise.  They have the wisdom to see both the glory of this miraculous birth and the challenges ahead for this very human family.  The elders understand the risks of God’s Incarnation, and the price that Mary will pay when her child of light is opposed by the darkness of the world. 

Both Simeon and Anna are old enough to know better, but they cannot help but rejoice in the redemption of the world represented by this family standing in the temple.  This family. Mary and Joseph. So ordinary.  So tired from the journey.  So poor.  So young.  So blown away by these elderly strangers blessing their struggling family. Yet Simeon and Anna see promise, even knowing that, like most things in life, no great joy comes without a cost. 

This is a moment that belongs on our Christmas cards.  Because, beloved community, Simeon and Anna’s job is also our job after the carols fade and the Christmas tree comes down, and the manger is tucked away in the storage room for another year.  This is why we were born. This is why our communities of faith exist.  This is why Emsworth U.P. Church and Community Presbyterian Church are called into being by God.  To lift up the poor and struggling, and help them to believe that they too are children or God.  Or even believe on their behalf when they cannot believe themselves that God’s promise is for them too. 

This is our task after the gifts have been returned and the last cookies have been eaten.  To share with one other where we see Jesus in our midst, even in astonishing places.  To honor those most vulnerable who still have something to teach us.  To be the safe place for the ones in whom God finds favor, despite all appearances to the contrary.  We are called to bless and be a blessing.  That’s our job.  That’s our job in Epiphany and moving into the new year.

As I thought about Mason’s baptism, I remembered that my oldest daughter, Rachel, was also baptized on the Sunday after Christmas in my home church in Uniontown, Pa.  It was the only Sunday that my family could all be gathered conveniently, and I remember it being a very hectic day, with a cranky baby, tired parents and scores of relatives trying to celebrate – something.  I’m not sure any of us at that moment knew exactly what we were doing.  We just knew it had to be done.

But I do remember some months later, stepping back into church life after a season away.  I knew, somewhere in my wandering heart, that our young family needed to connect to something larger than ourselves.   Not just to Jesus, but to a community of faith that demonstrated and taught and lived out the love of Jesus – the sort of community that had meant so much to me when I was growing up. 

All of us here have had the great joy of knowing many Simeons and Annas in our lives – people who have loved us and encouraged us and reminded us of who we are and to whom we belong. 

But as I look at this portrait of the infant Jesus and the elderly Simeon and Anna, I wonder also if we might see one more thing.  As I’ve read this text, I’ve been reminded that the late Vice President’s Hubert Humphrey once said, “…the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”  

Not to usurp the words of a man I admire greatly, but I wonder if we might also think of how we as Christians think about children in our communities and around the world.  How do we value children beyond our own?  Can we see each child as Simeon and Anna saw the Christ child?  A child of God?  A child of promise? Can we see each child born as gift?

I was reading an article last week that quoted a UNICEF report which said that as many 15 million young people are trapped in conflicts in the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Ukraine.  Throughout the world, 230 million children are living in regions destabilized by armed conflicts.  UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake said, “Children has been killed while studying in the classroom and while sleeping in their beds.  They have been orphaned, kidnapped, tortured, recruited, raped and even sold as slaves…never in recent memory have so many children been subjected to such unspeakable brutality.”  In South Sudan, where I will be traveling in 2 weeks, 750,000 children have been displaced, and 320,000 are living as refugees.  UNICEF says that in South Sudan, more than 600 children have been killed, while 12,000 have been recruited or captured by armed groups.[1]

A physician in Boston who grew up in Pakistan, writing after the massacre of the Pakistani school children 2 weeks ago, said, “I was sitting in our Cardiac-Medical conference this morning, discussing cases of complex heart disease and contemplating the fact that we devote prodigious human and financial resources to saving the life of one child while others somehow see fit to kill children at random…The smallest coffins are the heaviest.”[2]

2014 was a terrible year for children.  Even close to home, in our own country.  Gun violence.  Exploitation.  Rape.  Abuse. 

Yet, maybe, even in the midst of the evil we cannot escape no matter how much we try, the only thing we have on this day is praise. Praise of our God whose power is known and experienced in the vulnerability of humanity. Whose love is felt in pain and loss. Whose hope knows no limits.

We desperately need Anna and Simeon this week. We need them to help us utter the praise of God that simultaneously responds to God’s presence and resists the presence of evil. We need them to model the reaction to the convergence of waiting that seems to never end and fulfillment beyond our wildest dreams.  We need them to give us the courage to trust in our God who is indeed present and powerful when the world in which we live suggests otherwise.

The late Presbyterian pastor and poet David Steele wrote about Simeon.  In it, he imagines Simeon going back and forth to the Temple every day in his final years, pronouncing that very same blessing over all the babies presented to him.  It's meant to be funny, this image of Simeon, but then, suddenly, Steele turns and says this:

When I read the blessing
And thought about it,
I began to wish he was right,
About Simeon--and those babies.
And I began thinking about our babies.

And I wished someone,
Some Simeon,
Might hold my grandbabies high--
And yours--
The born ones and the not yet
Proclaiming to them
With great conviction,
"You are the saviors of the World!"
Meaning it so absolutely
Those young 'uns would live it,
And love it,
And make it happen![3]

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[3] Presbyterian Outlook, April 17th, 2000, 12.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Love Came Down -- Christmas Eve, 2014

You can hear the entire service by clicking this link:

Christmas Eve 2014
Readings and Scripture

The Coming of God (Ann Weems)
Our God is the One who comes to us
in a burning bush
in an angel's song,
in a newborn child.
Our God is the One who cannot be found
locked in the Church,
not even in the sanctuary.
Our God will be where God will be
with no constraints,
no predictability.
Our God lives where our God lives,
and destruction has no power
and even death cannot stop
the living.
Our God will be born where God will be born,
but there is no place to look
for the One who comes to us.
When God is ready
God will come
even to a godforsaken place
like a stable in Bethlehem.
for you know not when
God comes.
Watch, that you might be found
God comes.

Isaiah 9:2-7
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined. 
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
 they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder. 
4 For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian. 
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 
6 For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 11:1-9                       
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Love Alone (Gian Carlo Menotti)           
The Child we seek
doesn’t need our gold.
On love, on love alone
he will build his kingdom.
His pierced hand will hold no scepter,
his haloed head will wear no crown;
his might will not be built on your toil.
Swifter than lightening
he will soon walk among us.
He will bring us new life
and receive our death,
and the keys to his city
belong to the poor.
Luke 1:26-38                       
  In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’* But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’* The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born* will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
Luke 2:1-14                       
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph 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. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And 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.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

(Adapted from Barbara Brown Taylor’s, “God’s Daring Plan”)

Once upon a time, before there were clocks or calendars or Christmas trees, God was all there was.  And one day, God decided to make a world.  Maybe God was bored, or maybe God was lonely, or maybe God just liked to make things and thought it was time to try something new.   Something big.  Something really big.

For whatever reason, God made a world.  And when the world was finished, God stood back and took a look.  God was happy with the world, but it occurred to God that something was missing.  God wasn’t sure what was missing at first, but soon God knew what was needed.

Everything God had made was interesting and beautiful, but there was nothing in the world that looked like God.  So, God decided to make a man and woman and both of them would be reflections of God, and both could keep God and one another company.

God made them out of flesh and blood, a wonderful medium and warm to the touch.  Since God was not made out of anything at all, but was pure mind and spirit, God was fascinated by the two creatures.  God knew how fragile they were, but their very breakability made them more touching to God, somehow.

Soon, God found himself falling in love with the humans.  In fact, God liked being with human beings better than any of the other creatures, and God especially liked walking with them in the garden in the cool of the evening.

Then the human beings broke God’s heart.  The humans did the one thing God told them not to do.  And after doing that one thing, the man and the woman made things worse by hiding from God.  God searched for them until way past dark, calling their names over and over again.

After that, things between God and the humans were very different. God still love the human creatures best of all, but the attraction was not mutual.

In fact, it wasn’t long before most human beings forgot all about God.  All of them were very busy learning how to make things, grow things, buy things, sell things, and the more that human beings learned to do for themselves, the less they depended on God.

People began to call themselves “self-made” men and women as if that were a good thing.  They forgot about God’s love and care for them.  They forgot to thank God for all the good things that happened to them.  But when something went wrong, they often blamed God.  Mostly, they just ignored God.

Night after night, God threw pebbles at their windows, inviting them to go for a walk and maybe have a talk, but the men and women said they were too busy. Sorry.

God could have put a stop to it.  When God saw things like wars and famines and the terrible things happening to the people God created, God thought maybe God should put a stop to it.  But there was a problem with that.  God had made the human beings free.  God had given them their freedom just like their hearts and brains, and even God could not take back human freedom without killing the humans themselves.   It almost killed God to watch what they were doing to one another, how much they hurt each other, how cruelly they treated one another.

God would yell to them, “Please stop what you’re doing before you destroy yourselves!” but all the people could hear was thunder.  God would shout, “I love you as much now as the day I made you,” but all the people could hear was a loon calling across the water.  God invaded people’s dreams, and if that did not work God woke them up in the middle of the night with whispering.  No matter what God tried, God came up against the barriers of flesh and blood and human freedom.

Babies were the exception to this sad state of affairs.  While their parents seemed to have a hard time hearing God’s messages, babies had no trouble at all.  Babies spent a lot of time laughing at God’s jokes or crying with God when God cried.  The babies’ parents had no idea what was going on.  “Colic,” the grownups would say, or “Isn’t she cute?  She’s laughing at the dust mites in the sunlight.”  But, the baby was really laughing because God has just told her it was cleaning day in heaven and what the baby saw were fallen stars the angels were shaking from their feather dusters.

Here’s another thing about babies. Babies did not go to war.  Babies never made hate speeches or littered or refused to play with each other because they belonged to different political parties or different religions. While no one asked babies their opinions about anything, almost everyone seemed to love babies, and that gave God an idea.

Why couldn’t God become one of these delightful creatures?  Why couldn’t God become a baby?

God tried the idea out on his angels.  The angels told God how much they would worry about God if God decided to become a baby. There was no telling what people would do to God, the angels said.  Couldn’t God at least become a magical baby with special powers so God would be safe? Like the power to become invisible or hurl bolts of lightening? 

God thanked the angels for their concern but said, no, God thought a regular baby would do.  How else could God gain the trust of God’s creatures?  How else could God persuade them that God knew their lives inside and out unless God lived like one of them?  That was part of what God wanted humans to know: that God was willing to risk everything to get close to them, in hopes that they might love God again. 

It was a daring plan, but once the angels saw that God was dead set on it, they broke into applause – the steady kind of clapping that goes on and on when you have witnessed something you know you will never see again.


While the angels were still clapping, God turned around and left them,  shedding God’s robes as he went.  The angels watched as God’s midnight blue cape fell to the floor, so that all the stars collapsed on it in a heap.  Then a strange thing happened.  Where God’s robes had fallen, the floor melted and opened up to reveal a scrubby brown pasture speckled with sheep.  In the middle of the pasture, there was a bunch of shepherds sitting around a campfire drinking wine out of a skin. 

It was hard to say who was more surprised, the shepherds or the angels.  One of the angels finally stepped up to the edge of the hole.  Looking down at the shepherds who were all scared out of their wits, the angel said in as gentle a voice as she could muster, “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.”

And away up the hill, from the direction of town, came the sound of a newborn baby’s cry.

Hush (Lucinda Hynett)
Can you hear it?
An expectant silence,
a hushed anticipation,
as if the very galaxy
is holding its breath.
There are some truths
even the stars know,
like darkness,
like loneliness
and how the night
can be a living thing.
And how once, long ago,
the night waited in wonder
along with the darkness
and the loneliness,
for the sound of a baby’s cry,
for the miraculous
to come down
to the earth mundane.

John 1:1-4
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.*
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Christmas Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen/Cloverton)
I've heard about this baby boy
Who's come to earth to bring us joy
And I just want to sing this song to you
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
With every breath I'm singing hallelujah

A couple came to Bethlehem
Expecting child, they searched the inn
To find a place for you were coming soon
There was no room for them to stay
So in a manger filled with hay
God's only Son was born, oh hallelujah
ALL:  Hallelujah

The shepherds left their flocks by night
To see this baby wrapped in light
A host of angels led them all to You
It was just as the angels said
You'll find Him in a manger bed
Immanuel and Savior, hallelujah
ALL: Hallelujah

Congregation (Singing)
I know you came to rescue me
This baby boy would grow to be
A man and one day die for me and you
My sins would drive the nails in you
That rugged cross was my cross, too
Still every breath you drew was hallelujah

*Those that are able may stand.

With Thanks To Our:

Readers:  Keith Mihelcic, Rachel Rothenberg, Sue Schneider, Mark Shannon

Choir:  Jean Ackerman, Marti Smart, Tom Smart, Georgia Stringert, Mary Tadler, Max Fisher

Special Music: Madison Hintemeyer, Keith Mihelcic, Erin Williams, Rachel Rothenberg,

Organist and Choir Director: Cindy Ward

Custodian:  Paul Zende