Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Eve Sermon - 12/24/2010

Well, we made it. It is Christmas Eve and nearly all of the preparations are done for Christmas. As a church those preparations involved the advent conspiracy bible study. Through it and our time together we learned that Christmas can still change the world so long as we don’t let ourselves get caught too much into the Christmas Preparations and gift buying to forget that Christmas is a time of worship. It is a time to remember the gift that God gave through the birth of His son, Jesus Christ. As a church we talked about what it would mean if we worshipped fully, spent less, gave more, and loved all. It was a challenge to all of us to slow down and really think about all that we do at Christmas time and figure out if it adds to our relationships, if it adds to our worship, and if changes the lives of those around us. And yet, even though we talked about slowing down and celebrating Christmas in a new way, it is still hard to do that all the time. I am going to share a story with you this evening, it is the story of My Perfect Christmas tree, or at least that’s what I thought it was going to be.

This year I got into the Christmas spirit early and I couldn’t wait to get a tree. My wife, Rebecca, and I went out to a couple of tree farms but never picked out a tree so it was already about a week after I really wanted to get a tree and I was getting antsy in anticipation. Then one afternoon we went out to a farm walked through the fields and found our tree. The attendant cut it down, tied it up, and tied it to our roof and we were on our way home.
I had read online that the best way to keep a tree fresh is to soak it in a bucket of water for a few days so, naturally the waiting continued and I really wanted to bring this tree into the house. I was patient however, and waited. Finally we brought it in and then we didn’t have time to decorate it for a few days, so again I was waiting for the time when that perfect tree would be decorated in our living room with lights and ornaments.

A few days later, we invited my mom and my sister over to help decorate the tree. It was our first afternoon free and I couldn’t wait to get it up and I thought it would be a good time.

Now you may be wondering what this has to do with Christmas but I ask you to indulge me a few moments to set the scene. I love model trains. I have always wanted a model train around the base of my tree, but I knew it was an impossibility with a 75-pound puppy that likes to eat everything and a cat that likes to bat at everything that moves. Then one day, as I was walking through the store, I found it. The train that would solve my problems and it would look perfect. It was a train that went around the upper part of the tree. A clamp wrapped around the trunk and struts came out to support the track. It was perfect. This perfect train solved the problem of my less than perfect cats and it would go around my perfect tree and everything would look perfect, I couldn’t wait.

And then things started to go wrong. As I was reading the directions I saw that the clamp needed a four-inch space without smaller branches on the trunk. So naturally, my first inclination was to remove a few small branches. So a snip here, a snip there, then I had my space to put the clamp. I didn’t even look at the tree and I began to put up that perfect train and got all the parts together. I put the train on the track and pressed the button and it didn’t work. I replaced the batteries, put the train on the track and pressed the button and it started to make noise. The bells were ringing, the conductor was yelling, “All aboard” and yet the train never began to move. So my perfect train, which was kind of harder to put up didn’t work. In the mean time I never really stepped back to look at the tree now that it had lights and the train on it. Rebecca came into the room and suggested I step back and take a look. And when I did, my heart sank. It turns out the little branches I trimmed were kind of important to the ascetics of the tree. Just above the train track there was a balk spot that wrapped ¾ of the around the tree. There was just a small strip down the back that hadn’t been touched. If my heart could go any lower than it had before it would have. I took my perfect tree and my perfect train and turned it into a broken train and a scalped tree. And while all this was going on, I burned dinner. In my mind the evening was ruined, my mom and Rebecca tried to console me and say it would be ok, but I wouldn’t hear of it. My perfect tree was ruined.

It wasn’t until a few days later when I tried to “fix” my tree that my attitude started to turn around. After a few dowel rods, some fishing line, and a few extra branches that I really did have to remove around the bottom of the tree, it looked fairly normal. My only prayer was that it would last until after Christmas without burning the house down. After all, nothing gets the board of trustees on your side like a fire in the parsonage. Finally, after about a week, I came to my senses and realized how my behavior ruined that evening more than the tree. I was caught up looking for the perfect Christmas tree, the perfect train, and the perfect evening and nothing went like was planned and I let it get to me. Now I am sure that I am not the only one who has had this same problem. We get caught up in the act of trying to create the perfect Christmas that we lose track of what is really important. And the surprising thing is that the story of the first Christmas tells us that things don’t always go as planned.

Mary and Joseph were betrothed, I am sure they planned out their perfect life. Then all of a sudden an angel appears to marry and then to Joseph and says “behold you shall bear a son and you shall name him Jesus.” Can you imagine the shock to the system? They had everything planned out and then the unexpected happened.
When they got used to the idea that Mary would bear the Son of God, they probably started to plan the perfect birth in their home with family and friends near by. That too was not meant to be. Rome decrees a census to be taken and the family needs to return to Bethlehem. Here is Mary, very pregnant and she and her husband need to travel 4 days to get to where they needed to go.

While on this journey they may have imagined finding a room where they could get comfortable. They might be able to clean it up a little and Mary would have this newborn child indoors. Here again, our story tells us that that too was not meant to be. When they arrived in Bethlehem, they could not find a room. Either there were no rooms present or they didn’t have the money to get any of the rooms that were left. Their new expectation of a perfect birth in a room at the inn was dashed because they could not find one. Instead they are directed to a stable and a manger where there are animals, some unpleasant odors, probably some noise, and some probably frightened animals. And this is were this unexpected child who should have been born at home but needed to leave, who should have been born in a room in the inn but could not find one, is born in a stable and it works out in the end anyway. It works out for the salvation of all and this good news is shared to all, starting with the shepherds, who even they may have thought they would have a perfectly quiet night watching their flock.

You see, the Christmas story is full of unexpected events, dashed imaginations of perfection, and probably a little let down as each new problem arose, and yet it lead Mary and Joseph to where they needed to be for the Savior to be born as God intended it. Everything worked out.

Over the next couple days, I can guarantee that something will not turn out quite right. Pies will be burnt, toys will not work, and guests may not be able to show up. You dreams of the perfect Christmas will probably be dashed at some point along the way. If you have gotten caught up in the preparation of Christmas and not the celebration of Christmas, you may be devastated, but when you are caught up in the celebration of the even that changed the world forever, you will be like Mary and Joseph, take it in stride and look toward the beautiful baby that lay in a manger. Who came in an unexpected way that went against the vision of perfection of those around him? Celebrate the birth of Christ this day and when things don’t go as expected, do not fret, but look toward the king and celebrate because not everything goes according to our plans.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Advent Conspiracy - Spend Less/Give More - Make giving an act of worship

Focus Text: Matthew 1:18-23

This morning marks the second week of advent. In the traditional church calendar, and the one our wreath lighting comes from this Sunday is a day of righteousness. As our wreath lighters read, “We light the second candle, reminding us that we are to dispel the darkness of sickness, poverty, injustice, and suffering all around us.” We are called to a life or righteousness and this candle that burns brightly today reminds us that the darkness that cover the land can and will be dispelled. As we try to celebrate a Christmas that runs counter to the predominant culture through our “Advent Conspiracy” Bible study, we can dispel the darkness that clouds our vision of advent and Christmas. Speaking o the Advent Conspiracy Bible Study, if you did not participate this week you are always welcome to join in. You have not missed anything that would prevent you from being able to join in the conversation.

This morning, I have decided to combine the topic of the next two weeks in the study into one sermon this morning. I wanted to finish preaching from the study before the Sunday of the children’s program so that you may be aware of this advent celebration during advent.

Now let’s begin by opening our bibles and turning to Matthew Chapter 1 verses 18 to 23 on page 955 in your pew bibles.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privately. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

May God add a blessing to the reading of God’s word.

If you remember last week, I talked about the importance of worshipping fully. I talked about how easy it is for us to replace the worship of the one true God with the worship of something else, usually money or things. I lifted up Mary as an example of how worship begins. Worship begins at hearing the sound of God’s voice, and I reminded you that God’s voice is more often than not found in the silent moments and it is our duty to silence ourselves and wait for that silent voice to speak. Now as we move to the topic of the second and third weeks of our advent study please do not forget that what we do at Christmas is first and foremost worship. Worship is not only what we do, but it is who we are. Worship is more than just coming to church on Sunday mornings or singing hymns or praise songs. Worship is something that should encompass our whole being it should touch every aspect of our life and it should direct us in all things.

Remember this as we move on to today’s topics.

Over the next two weeks the small groups that meet on Wednesday mornings and Thursday Evenings will be talking about two seemingly divergent ideas. This week we will talk about the importance of spending less, and next week we will talk about the importance of giving more. Our study and our desire to celebrate a more Christ filled advent and Christmas asks us to both spend less and give more. How is this possible, how do we do both, and what does it have to do with worshiping fully? These are the questions that I pray God will bring answers to this morning.

Now I know what some of you may be thinking. “Here he goes with another sermon on money. This makes at least 3 maybe 4 sermons that focused mainly on money, and who knows how many mention it.” Some of you may be thinking that I am out to kill Christmas or that I am somehow against those of you who enjoy the hubbub of the Christmas season. And I know that you didn’t come to worship this morning to hear a sermon delivered by Ebeneezer Scrooge Saying Bah Humbug to Christmas. I assure you that I am not, I love Christmas. I don’t like going to the malls all that much, but I like to find that perfect gift for someone. I love watching them open their presents and seeing the joy that they have on their face. But I also know, sometimes painfully so, that we have gone astray. To celebrate Christmas more fully we do not have to shrink our hearts down two sizes too small like the Grinch. In fact, I am saying the opposite. Because we are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ our Lord we can give extravagantly and we can love and worship fully in every aspect of our lives. Its not just about spending less, but it more about changing our hearts.

I think that we as a people have lost the meaning of what a gift is. We have turned gifting into an exchange of commodities. A commodity is something that has a set and agreed upon value and when it changes hands then there is an equal exchange. When you go to the hardware store and purchase a hammer. You and the retailer generally agree on the value of that hammer. And since you as the customer would like to purchase that hammer you offer something that is of equal value the one placed on the hammer. In our society that is money. Our giving has taken on this sort of dynamic. We look at an object we determine its worth, we look at the potential recipient and look at their worth. When the two line up we give the gift. If the two don’t line up we will either withhold the gift or decide to give something else. Some of you are out there thinking, “well that is a sad way of looking at it.” I agree it is sad, but it is true. To prove it, how many of you have gone out shopping and when you find that perfect gift, you look at the price and think, well that’s too expensive and put it back. Or what about the opposite. You find that perfect item, the one you know that person will like, you look at the price and think well I need to spend more than that and you put it back get it and start looking for something else to go with it. In terms of giving, our society has replaced money with love. We exchange a certain amount of love for a gift and it is ours.

Now these are extreme examples, but here is one I am sure you are aware of because it permeates our culture. How many of you have ever thought that the value of your loved one is expressed through how much you spend on them. The more you love them the more you spend. If you don’t like them as much you won’t spend as much. Or to put it a little differently, for those of you who are parents, “Because I love my kids so much I am going to buy everything I can for them.” Within that statement is the truth that I am trying to get at. We have somehow lost the meaning of gift and replaced gifting with some sort of monetary transaction. Unfortunately, this is having disastrous consequences on our planet and our culture. Did you know that right at this moment there are more Barbie doll in the United States than there are people. Our earth cannot sustain too many more of these Christmases. It carries through in our culture when on average parents in the United States spend 6 hrs shopping and only 40 minutes playing with their kid. 6hrs shopping verses 40 minutes in play. That is just bazaar and it is tearing us apart piece by piece. I think the problem begins with monetizing gifting, but it is exacerbated by the fact that we we don’t know how to place a monetary value on something like play time so we don’t know how to enter it into the gifting equation. We like the things we can place a value on so that we can prove our love by spending X amount of Dollars.

The admonition that our bible study offers and I offer to you today too spend less this Christmas season is not meant to ruin your Christmas. It is not meant to make you spend no money on Christmas gifts for friends and loved ones. It is more a direct challenge to this system of monetizing gifts and comodifying love. By asking ourselves to spend less, we are telling ourselves that this way of valuing people and relationships through gifting is not quite right. When we ask each other to spend less we are not saying tone down your Christmas celebration, instead we are collectively saying that their has got to be a better understanding of giving that expresses our love and our worship. The answer, at least in terms of this Advent’s study, is to give more.

There I go again. I finish a paragraph about spending less, with the statement to give more. How is that possible, how is it possible to spend less and give more? For that, we need to turn to a new way of looking at gifting. We need to claim a model of giving that isn’t monetized and isn’t expressed exclusively through gift buying. To find this model we turn nowhere else but the reason God became flesh come to save the world expressed in John 3:16. You know the words, say them with me, “For God so loved the world that he GAVE his only begotten son so that all who believe in him will not perish but have everlasting life.”

This gift of God we celebrate all year and especially at this time of year can show us what gifting looks like. There are three characteristics we can gather from God’s So what are these characteristics of true gifting then? First, a gift is always moving, second, a gift creates obligation, and finally, a gift creates relationship.

The gift that our Lord has given us on Christmas morning is not one that we receive and own. It is not ours to keep as if we only have rights to it. It is given and it is passed on so that all may be uplifted. This gift, and therefore any gift, is always moving, or changing hands. This is different than the usual model of giving and receiving that we have. Much like how we purchase a hammer in an exchange for money that hammer becomes ours and ours alone. When we receive a gift, a transaction has taken place and that gift is ours and ours alone. In early American history, white settlers experienced this type of gifting when they exchanged gifts with the native americans. They ended up coming up with a derogatory term “Indian Giver.” They couldn’t fathom that a gift would change hands so many times. Perhaps the more accurate term is “White man gift keeper.” The native americans couldn’t understand a gift that didn’t benefit the whole group that didn’t pass from one person to the next for all to receive enjoyment. What if on Christmas morning when we exchange those gifts for loved ones we didn’t hear, this is yours and this is yours, but this is for all of us. Different families do this in different ways, some donate to charity, some give their time to a food kitchen, and many who do not have very man means find those gifts to give that fulfill a common need that the family has. It, may not look as nice under the tree, but a family that has food, shelter, and warmth when there was doubt that they would has experienced this type of giving more than the rest of us may have.

The next characteristic of a gift involves a word that our society has tried to forget. Obligation. A gift creates obligation. Aside from the credit card companies, we don’t like to be obligated to anyone. We try to do as even exchange as possible so that we can avoid this, but a true gift creates obligation. A true gift is unmerited and not based on any calculation of worth or value of either the gift or the recipient. Praise God for that, because God’s gift to us on that first Christmas is not one that we are entitled to or one that we have earned or one that is measured against our value or our love for God. God’s gift of His Son is one of unmerited grace given out of love, and we feel obligated toward God for that gift. Obligation has picked up negative connotations in our culture where everyone tries to be self-sufficient and self-reliant, it is not a negative thing, it is a sign of community. Obligation towards Christ’s mercy and grace shown in his Birth, life, death, and resurrection is what moves us to be the body of Christ. We feel a calling to answer that gift of love with a response of love of our own. How would it look if our Christmas celebrations matched this type of giving? What would a true gift look like that is given out of so much love that the other person feels obligated to do the same, not necessarily to you but to someone. Here again, I am not talking about going out and buying everyone a lexus and putting a bow on it, though if out of love you wanted to put one in my driveway, well never mind... The monetary value of a lexus may create obligation, but it is probably not an expression of love toward that person. I can’t give you the answers as to what this gifting looks like. It will take a lot of creativity on your part, but that is part of the worship experience. When you think of a loved one or friend what do you think will be an expression of the great love between you and what expression will cause that person to show love in a similar way to someone else.

Finally, this type of gifting that which is not based on monetary value and doesn’t try to express their love in monetary formulations creates relationship. A gift given based on monetary assumptions and even exchange does not build relationships. Parents who shop for six hours and play for 40 minutes each week are not getting closer together. Now I know that those parents are shopping out of love for their children and want to make their children have a great Christmas, but is it worth the cost? Is it worth the cost? In my opinion, I would have to say no. And I have to hold our current understanding of gifting accountable for this terrible mismanagement of relationships. What if, instead of expressing our love with our friends and family through shopping and gifts we expressed it by spending time with those we love and create relationships?

You see, God’s ultimate gift to us was one of relationship. God did not send his son for us on Christmas morning so that we might move on in our lives, only saved instead of damned. I tell you, this is not a gift of salvation alone, but a gift of relationship. God so loved the world that He wanted to be in relationship with it. God so loved each and every one of you so God became human in the form of an infant and dwelt among us so that He could remain with us forever. It is an amazing thought and a tremendous source of joy that the creator of all things desires to be in relationship with us. We can be like Christ when we give relationally. Instead of buying that gift find an activity that they like to do and spend time doing it together. Instead of buying yet another gift, find a skill that you know how to do and show them how to do it. If you know how to sew and you think a family member or friend would like to learn how to do it, offer to teach them. If you love to cook or bake and you know someone who shows an interest in that, not only give them recipe but offer to come to their home and teach them. The relationships that will come from these gifts will grow and they will be fruitful.

Today, I have offered you a new way of thinking about gift preparation and giving. It is one that involves more than just going to the mall and wrapping presents. Instead it takes patience, time, and a prayerful attitude about the person who is receiving the gift. In other words, our gifting becomes an act of worship. Not of the God of money but of our true God that who knows the hearts and minds of all. Our gifts do not have to be calculated exchanges but instead be acts of worship expressed through the love of another. This worshipful giving is so great that the recipient cannot hold it on to the gift, and it moves from person to person and benefits the larger group. Worshipful giving creates obligation because it comes from the heart. It does not have to be a lot of money, but if you give from the heart it will be great and it will cause a chain reaction. Finally, worshipful giving creates relationship. It creates a relationship with God and it creates a relationship with the person you give the gift to. A parent cannot spend 6 hrs shopping and 40 minutes playing and then make up for it with a gift. Give the gift of your time and presence and that gift will be remembered even more.

As we move forward in our service, think about this new understanding of giving. Experience communion as a gift from God that is not based on money but on love. Receive communion as a gift that will require you to give in the future; as a gift that obligates you to love, and as a gift that builds relationships.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Advent Conspiracy - Worship Fully - Resist idols and listen for God's voice

Luke 2:8-20

After reading today’s passage some of you may be wondering if I have lost it completely. Just last week I was lamenting the fact that in our culture the “Christmas” Season has already started. At the thanksgiving service at Immaculate Conception Church I was the idea that Thanksgiving is an oasis of thankfulness in the dessert of Consumerist desire and satisfaction. I know I have mentioned that I don’t like the fact that our culture celebrates Christmas earlier and earlier each year, and here I am reading, the quintessential Christmas eve passage, and its only the last weekend of November. Since Halloween, I have walked around the stores and have asked, “What happened to thanksgiving.” Today, many of you may be asking, “What happened to advent?” Have I somehow skipped the time of expectant waiting and moved right into jubilant song and celebration? I hope that by the end of our time here together you will have an answer to that question.

The season of Advent was originally intended to be somewhat like the season of Lent, which is observed during the seven weeks prior to Easter. Both advent and lent are seasons of penance and reflection. We enter a time of spiritual preparation for the big event that is Christmas. Usually the chosen texts for the first Sunday of advent focuses on the second coming of Christ and preparing for it as a means to prepare for Christmas. In our present context, though, Advent, and the weeks preceding it, has been co-opted. Advent has become in the culture of Western capitalism a time for conspicuous consumption. Perhaps, since this is the case, perhaps it is better to remind ourselves the meaning of Christmas and relearn what it means to prepare ourselves for Christ’s first coming before we can fully understand the meaning and significance of Christ’s second coming.

For this task, I have chosen for us the Advent conspiracy Bible Study. Beginning today and then, over the next several weeks we will try to recapture the meaning of advent and Christmas that first Christmas from a culture that tries to hide it. Today we will begin by discussing what it means to worship fully. To turn back to the heart of worship and worship the one true God made flesh in Jesus Christ. I believe that if we get this right, and prepare ourselves through prayer and reflection then how we enter the Christmas story will be changed for the better forever.

For those of you reading the book, the chapter for this weeks study begins with an intriguing statement. It says, “Our hearts are formed by what we worship.” The things we get excited over, the things that motivate us, the things we turn to for comfort, and the things that we place our hope, are for all intents and purposes the things that we worship because that is where our hearts are focused. If those things are something other than God, it is idolatry. The bible is full of stories where people began to place their trust in something other than God, people began to find security and hope in something other than the God of all creation. From the time when Moses went up the mountain to receive the ten commandments and the people in frustration and fear built an idol in his absence to the warnings of Jesus that we cannot serve two masters, we are reminded how easily we fall prey to idolatry. Our hearts will change and our actions will change with them. If we find comfort, security, and hope in things like money, wealth, or any other substance then our actions will be motivated to participate in those things. Worship shapes our hearts, our hearts shape our actions.

So what is it then that we worship in our culture all year but especially at this time of year? Well, what do our actions say? Think about this: Over the next five weeks how many trips will you make to stores, malls or shopping centers? How many trips will you make to worship in that same time? Over the next five weeks how much time will you spend on online shopping as opposed to time spent in prayer or reading scripture? How much money will you give to retailers as opposed to charities that serve people who genuinely need the basic necessities of life? These are difficult questions, because we, including myself, don’t like the answers we come up with. But the statistics answer truthfully when we are hesitant to do so.

It is estimated that Americans spend about 450 billion (with a B) dollars each year at Christmas. Our culture is set up to ensure that this happens, because nearly everyone makes money on a Christmas that is shaped by consumerism. Retailers sell goods to consumers usually on credit so they make money, the average Christmas debt is paid off in May, and so credit card companies make a lot of money between Christmas and May. The state has a 6% sales tax; the state makes a lot of money on its portion of the 450 billion dollar spending. Factories and businesses around he globe focus on how well sales are going and news outlets will continuously release sales information because we define our national health and well being by our ability to spend money. We have turned into a culture that acts on its desires for more, we place our hope in that new car, and we think we are secure when we have a house full of stuff. There is a war on Christmas, but it is not waged by atheists who do not want a nativity on a public space or by Jews who want their menorah in the airport with all the other Christmas decoration, it is waged by our culture on the true meaning of Christmas. It is the store that puts their nativity in the store window surrounded by sale items and glittery decorations. Which perverts and destroys Christmas more, a statement asking you to celebrate Christmas in your home and church instead of on government land or a statement that says Christmas is about buying gifts and that Christ’s birth means its time for a sale so you can prove your love even more.

So what is the solution? I could stand up here and tell you that you need to act differently. You need to go to the store less, buy fewer things, spend time with your loved ones, but I don’t think what we have is a problem of action. Remember, our hearts are shaped by our worship, and our hearts shapes our actions. What we have is a heart problem, and ultimately that points to a worship problem. How did I define idolatry earlier? An idol is something we get excited over, like new gifts, new toys, or new gadgets. An idol is something that motivates us, We want a new car, a bigger home, newer stuff, a “nice Christmas” so people work 2-3 jobs to get it sacrificing family and friends to do so. An idol is something we turn to for comfort; yesterday I watched a comedy called “Confessions of a shopaholic” where the main character found comfort and acceptance when she bought things. I think it hits home closer than what we care to admit. Finally, an idol is something that we place our hope in. Advertising is good at playing on or weakness against idolatry. It gets us thinking that if we bought this we would be better parents, or if we had this new car we would be more successful. Our entire economic system is oriented toward creating idols out of stuff and our actions, especially this time of year, show that for the most part we have fallen for it. Our worship has turned from God to things and our hearts and actions follow. When given the choice between God and Money, we, as a Society, have clearly chosen money. So our problem isn’t that we are acting wrongly, but that our entire being is direct toward the wrong thing in worship.

Reorienting ourselves toward the right object is an impossible task. We just don’t have the power within ourselves to turn away from the idols towards God. But God gives us the strength each day to do just that. However, it is up to us to exercise that strength. We can be mindful of when we are being pulled into idolatrous worship and fight against it when it starts to happen. To do so, I think it is helpful to look for a pattern of worship. For that we turn to today’s passage. Our story begins with the shepherds in the field watching over their flock, when out of nowhere an angel appears to them and says, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” At this announcement the heavens rolled back and the shepherds saw a multitude of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace among those whom he favors.” At the word of God the angels joined in worship, and at the word of God the shepherds dropped what they were doing and went to see Mary and Joseph and the newborn King. You see, worship begins with the hearing of God’s word. Perhaps this is why our worship has gone awry. Perhaps it is too difficult, if not impossible, to hear that still small voice of God within our spirits when our spirits are bombarded with the noise of advertisements on TV or the messages that our culture has. In the noise that is consumerist driven holidays, we have lost that sweet and quiet song of the newborn King.

The smallness of God’s voice is not difficult to understand, I think we have all experienced it. And in 1 Kings 9:11-12, Elijah does as well. In that passage Elijah is told to stand on the mountain before God and when he did a great wind began to blow and it was breaking the mountain in pieces, but God was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there as a fire, but God was not in the fire. And after the fire there was a still silence, and when Elijah heard it he got up.

If we any hope that we will once again be able to experience Christmas as the world changing event that it is, we must find a way to sit in silence. We must find a way to distinguish between the voices of the world that say worship me, and remain quiet until we hear the voice of God in the silence. Our culture, especially during this time of year tries very hard to drown out the voice of God. It tries to have you constantly on the move, there is great excitement and promises of safety and these things are easy to mistake for God’s voice and are easy to chase after. The response is to take time to be silent, and reflect on what is going on around you, and to listen for the voice of God that happens in that silence.

The voice of God will speak to us and share that good news of great joy and it will enlivens our hearts, it will move our feet, and it will bow our heads to this newborn King. If we do not remain still enough to listen to this voice, and if we do not begin to recognize what is God and what isn’t will be pulled in every direction and be left exhausted at the end, kind of like how I feel every January 3rd or 4th, once the Christmas season has ended. So during this time of preparation that is Advent, take time to slow down and listen for God’s voice and respond in worship. If we fail to do that, I fear that there is little hope for us to begin to worship the one who deserves it.

We can also turn to Mary’s example when we prepare ourselves to worship fully. In verse 19, Upon hearing what the shepherds said, everyone who heard it were amazed by what they had said, but Mary, “treasured all these words, and pondered them in her heart.” Mary heard these amazing visions that the shepherds described and the songs of the angels about her son and she did not keep her focus on the shepherds as others had done. She did not linger on the fantastical nature of their stories, but instead she treasured them, she pondered them, and she let them into her heart. Can you imagine the excitement that these few men had when they came to the manger and saw that what the angels said was true? I would imagine that this excitement was infectious and all those who were there were getting caught up in it. I don’t know if this is terribly different than how we celebrate Christmas in this country. The excitement gets us, the excitement captures our attention and imagination, the excitement is infectious, and the excitement makes us forget. I think that the shepherds, once they relayed their story caught the attention of those surrounding Mary and Jesus. Their focus left Jesus and this new miracle and turned toward the shepherds and their story.

I think the same thing happens now and the thing that has us excited has less to do with the multitude of angels and more to do with the desires of this world. We get caught up in what we are told we are supposed to do and think during this time of year and we lose sight of the presence of Christ. We get so caught up in the celebration of Christmas that we forget we are in the very presence of God. Instead of recognizing that presence and reveling in it, we revel in the messenger of a different message one of excitement and wonder.

I think Mary had the right idea. She heard what the shepherds had to say, but instead of getting caught up in their excitement, she treasured what she had heard and pondered it in her heart. She let it enter into her and change her heart. She was excited I am sure, but she did not let the excitement move her attention away from her the presence of God in her midst. She did not get excited over a multitude of angels while God himself was with her. She also did not ignore the message. If we were more like Mary in this single moment, our experience of Christmas and the Christ event would permeate all our worship. If we not only took time to be still and silent to hear the word of God, and then we treasured the words and pondered them in our heart, the culture of consumerism would be hard pressed to get us to worship its idols. When we remain silent and listen for God’s words and when we treasure and ponder what we hear, we are preparing ourselves to worship God. This advent, as we work through the advent conspiracy series and as we prepare for Christ’s coming, remember this first Holy Night in which we learn to wait silently for that small voice of God and remember to not get caught up in the excitement of the messengers of our culture but instead get excited over and worship the message. Fight the temptation to be drawn into worshiping the idols of our culture, but instead remember that Jesus Christ, God himself, became flesh for all of humanity. Christ is the one we worship this day, this season, and for all of our lives. The angels brought the god news of great joy to the shepherds and to us, and it is good news indeed.


Friday, November 26, 2010

Living a Life of Thanksgiving

On Thanksgiving Eve I had an opportunity to preach at an ecumenical worship service held at the local catholic church. I wanted to share that sermon with you all.

The First Thanksgiving: A metaphor for God's grace
Psalm 103
Rev. Kevin Rutledge

Let us pray, Gracious God, you have loved your people and brought us to this place together to worship you. We offer up to you this day all that we can, we offer our humble praises of thanksgiving for all that you have done for us. Bless us as we listen for your word, bless us with a heart of praise and thanksgiving so that we may see you in all things and be thankful. Amen.

If you are like most Americans, when you think of thanksgiving, you think of the pilgrims who held a fall festival to celebrate a successful harvest. But what you may not think of is the conditions that lead up to this feast and how it, at least for me, provides an example of God’s unmerited grace towards us and our proper response toward that grace. For that we will revisit the year leading up to the first thanksgiving.

You see, following their first landing at Plymouth, these pilgrims had a difficult time surviving. They began their voyage in early September and there were 120 passengers and about 30 crewmembers. They reached their final destination at Plymouth on December 11, 1620, journals and diaries from the time described a land that was already covered in snow. That winter they remained on ship so they would be protected from the elements. It may have helped, but it did not go well by anyone’s standards. Their numbers dwindled from 150 to about 80. Nearly half of the passengers and half of the crew died from contagious diseases. The fact that any of them were alive at this point was a blessing, but they did not make it on their own. Instead they received help from the local native population. The natives shared their food stores through the winter and in the spring began to teach the pilgrims how to survive in this new land. Squanto a native American who was enslaved and taken to England and had returned to North American taught the pilgrims how to fish for herring, and to use it as a fertilizer when planting corn, pumpkins and beans. A Native American tribe name Wampanoag provided help. They gave seeds because the ones they brought from England did not do well in the new soil. A member named Squanto showed them how to find clams and eels in the rivers and how to hunt for deer, bears and turkeys on land. Even the children were taught how to find nuts and berries. The pilgrims at Plymouth did not have much to offer and there is little doubt that the Native American would have survived without helping the pilgrims, but the pilgrims would have surely died without the help of the regional tribe.

The pilgrims were plagued by disease and hunger, they were on the brink of death, and there was nothing they could do to save themselves. They would not have made it on their own. The native Americans, some of whom had been enslaved, spurned, hated, and killed by others, took from their own food stores and gave to those would have died. This native tribe near Plymouth looked kindly upon the pilgrims, and offered them this gift of life and survival even though experience told them it would eventually backfire. And yet they gave anyway. This mercy is not unlike God’s mercy towards us.

But, what does God’s mercy look like? What are the gifts of God that have been offered to us and for which we should offer our praise? I turn now to Psalm 103, which I read earlier. Starting in verse 2, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—Who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” When we think of the magnitude of one of these things it can instill a desire to offer thanksgiving, let alone all of them together.

Last year, I experienced this desire to offer thanks first hand. Last year I served as a part time hospital chaplain in Nashville. There was a patient who came in very ill and no one could figure out what was wrong with him. Over a few weeks I had spent a good deal of time with his family, especially his eldest daughter. She just didn’t know what she would do if she lost her dad. His health was deteriorating and I watched him as he was moved from the cardiac floor to the special care floor, and finally to the intensive care unit. Then, one day after I had not been to the hospital in about a week, I went to see this patient and he had been moved back to the normal care area of the hospital. He was off the ventilators, and he was joking and eating again. I asked his daughter what had happened and she told me of this new doctor to the team who thought of something that might be going on. “He ran some tests and they were able to treat it.” The patient’s daughter could not contain her gratitude. She wanted to send the doctor flowers or a gift card; she wanted to find a way to express the gratitude that she felt for saving her dad’s life. Every once in a while, this desire to express gratitude to another person grips us, but how much more is God deserving of our gratitude for all the things that God has done for us.

For we who are Christians, we believe that God’s mercy was proven no grater than through Christ’s actions on the cross. And this is where our connection to the first thanksgiving comes to full light. If you are a Christian, then at some point the Holy Spirit grabbed hold of you and showed you that you were like the pilgrims when they first arrived at Plymouth. Not because you were seeking freedom from persecution but because we were close to the point of death and in need of help that only God can provide. Thankfully, at some point God took hold of you and said, you are on a path to destruction and I am here to help. For as the psalmist wrote, our God, Forgives all our sins, redeems us from death, crowns us with love and mercies and fills our lives with good things.” If you are not at that point yet, my prayer is that God will continue to grasp you to make you His.

In addition to being close to death like the first pilgrims, we also don’t deserve to receive mercy like them. And yet, like the Native Americans who helped the pilgrims in spite of the damages done to them in the past, God offers his gifts of mercy and grace in spite of the ways that we spurn those gifts or harm God’s people. The Apostle Paul wondered at this same fact in the epistle to the Romans Chapter 5 Verses 6 through 8, he wrote, (and here I read from the new living translation) “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation.” In spite of our weakness god still offers the gift of His son and with it the possibility to love God and be with God. For that I can think of no higher form of worship than to praise God with our whole heart at all times. And yet we often fail to do so. This is where Thanksgiving Day can help us.

In remembering that first thanksgiving, we find an allegory of God’s mercy in the actions of the Native Americans. But the feast in 1621 teaches us how our thankfulness should look. In response to gift offered by the Wampanoag, the 50 pilgrims that remained and the 90 Native Americans gathered for a three-day feast to celebrate the successful harvest. There was enough food to feed 53 pilgrims and 90 Native Americans. They ate fish, shellfish, wild birds, venison, berries, fruits and vegetables, harvest grains, and beans squash and corn. It was a magnificent feast by any standard. The pilgrims took what they learned from the Native Americans and used it they planted and harvested, the fished the waters and hunted the lands, and they were blessed with a great bounty. They were saved from the brink of death by no merit of their own and they began to prosper. When they saw their bounty they decided to have a feast. They gathered with their newfound friends and they feasted for three days. Can you imagine the joy they experienced on those days, especially when the remember how bad things were? Can you imagine the thankfulness that they had toward their new friends and saviors as they feasted on the plentiful harvest they had? I offer up to you today this example of a thankful and worshipful attitude that we can learn from this first thanksgiving. Their response to the aid they received can teach us how to respond to God’s overwhelming mercy. It reminds us that our thanksgiving and praise should be abundant and extravagant.

Just as the pilgrim’s thanked their friends who saved them from the brink of death by feasting with them, we offer our thanks and praise to God through worship. We worship God, not because it is our duty to do so, but because we recognize everything that God has done for us and our only response to abundance of God’s gifts is to raise our voice in praise and bow at Christ’s feet. Through our worship we give honor and praise to God. We remember what God has done for us and we praise God for it. In Psalm 100, the psalmist entreats us to an extravagant praise for what God has done. We are to enter His gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. Give thanks to Him and bless His name.” Gratitude and praise is the only response that we can offer God for all of God’s blessings. This gratitude is not expressed only on one day or even once a week. It is a constant expression of our live toward God for what God has done. What if this caused us to look at Thanksgiving Day differently?

What if in addition to being a special time to offer thanks to God, what if we looked at thanksgiving as a time of preparation. It is a time preparation, where we turn ourselves around in order to live a thankful life every day. Each year as the Christmas season advances further and further into the calendar and thanksgiving is lost in the shuffle. Lets face it, the world has already moved into Christmas mode, radio stations are playing nonstop Christmas music and Christmas lists are going out. Soon we will be in the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, trying to figure out what to buy other people, trying to manage all of the Christmas parties we need to go to, and trying to manage all the family gatherings that will happen over a relatively short amount of time. Now that thanksgiving no longer serves as the beginning of the Christmas season in our culture like it has in the past, perhaps thanksgiving is that one oasis in the midst of the Christmas season. Where we remind ourselves that our life is to be a life of gratitude for all that God as done for us, our families, and our nation. Because thanksgiving no longer marks the beginning of Christmas for our culture, it is instead a time in the midst of all this Christmas preparation to slow down turn to our families, neighbors, and God, and thank them for all that we are and all that we will be.

The other day I read a short story, and I would like to share it with you today in order to leave you with a sense of the importance of this thankful attitude.

Once upon a time, there was a far-away land that was ruled by a vicious king. His iron hand reached into every corner of his subjects' lives; every corner that is except one. Try as he might, he couldn't destroy their belief in God. In his frustration, he finally summoned his advisors and asked them: "Where can I hide God so the people will end up forgetting about him?" One suggested hiding God on the dark side of the moon. This idea was debated, but was voted down because the advisors feared that their scientists would one day discover a way to travel into space travel and God would be discovered again. Another suggested burying God in the deepest part of the ocean. But there was the same problem with this idea, so it was voted down. One idea after another was suggested and debated and rejected. Finally the oldest and wisest advisor had a flash of insight. "I know," he said, "why don't we hide God where no one will ever even think to look?" And he explained, "If we hide God in the ordinary events of people's everyday lives, they'll never find him!" And so it was done. And they say people in that land are still looking for God - even today.

Thanksgiving Day is a time to remember where God is in the day-to-day blessings that we receive, whether it is the freedom from sin, healing of an illness, the love of a spouse or child, or the fellowship of a neighbor. I challenge you this day to take time tomorrow and look for God in all things and give God extravagant praise for all that God is doing, and I challenge you to think of thanksgiving as a time to prepare yourself to live a life of eternal praise and thanksgiving.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Friendship Bread without the Friendship

Over the summer, I was given my first bag of friendship bread starter. I love baking new recipes and was eager to get started with this starter. I did the first 10 days and then baked some. I also had three that I gave out to friends and family. Well the bread was good and I wanted to make it again sometime. So I did another 10 days and made more bread. I then had another three starters with noone to hand out.

Now I started a new starter. I need to figure out how to keep the starter alive without having 3 extra batches to pawn off on someone else. I think I can use the standard starter procedure and replace what I use when I use it.

This brings up a different question, what does nashville taste like. My next starter is an attempt at a wild sourdough starter.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A man on a mission

Well Alton Brown was interesting, though none of his recipes were particularly useful for the home cook.

First, he used a whipped cream canister(uses nitrous oxide and cream to make whipped cream) to make home made aerosol cheese. (semi possible at home)

Second, he made ribs that sounded like it would be possible to make at home, but then he cooked them for 20hrs in an water immersion cooker. (Possible with thousands of dollars of equipment)

Finally, he used liquid nitrogen to make a red bull sorbet. Where in the world am I gonna get liquid nitrogen. (not possible, I have no idea where to get liquid nitrogen)

So what was the point of his presentation beyond looking cool? I am still not sure, but it did get me thinking. Is it possible to make an immersion cooker?

The way I have seen an immersion cooker work, is you put your foods(meats usually) is seasoned and placed into a vacuum sealed bag. The immersion cooker is set at the desired doneness of the meat, and then place the bag into the water. The meat needs to be in there long enough to get to that temperature(hence the 20hr ribs), and it can stay there for a long time without ever getting overdone because it will never go beyond the set temperature.

From what I can tell it has only a few requirements.

1) An insulated water bath area. Insulated to reduce wasted energy from the sides of a container.
2) A good heating element to warm water up to the desired final food temperature.
3) A good thermostat to keep liquid at final food temperature.
4) A way to move the water around the bin.
5) All parts need to stand up to the desired heating temperature(140 degrees minimum for food safety)

Side Note: Food grade equipment isn't completely necessary because of the way food is normally cooked in this item. The water is not in contact with the food. This will however eliminate the ability to use the the cooking vessel without the vacuum bags.

So instead of spending thousands of dollars for an immersion cooker, or waiting a few years until a home model might come out, is it possible to find parts that meet the above requirements while still costing little more than 200.00.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Exciting day..

I get to go to a cooking demonstration done by Alton Brown today. I am really excited.

More to follow....