Monday, December 30, 2013

The Dark Side of Christmas (Matthew 2:13-23)

     Paul Harvey used to have a popular radio show in which he would tell “the rest of the story.”    This morning I would like to tell you the rest of the story about Christmas . . . the part of the story no one really likes telling or hearing.  It is a story that begins long before that first Christmas . . . it is a story that begins with Jacob and his wives. 

     If you remember Jacob and how he fell in love with Rachel . . . how he agreed to work for seven years for the privilege of having her hand in marriage from her father and was tricked into marrying her older sister, Leah, and then working another seven years to finally marry Rachel.  Rachel was the love of his life, but she had a difficult time conceiving, while on the other hand, all of his other wives had no trouble.  Eventually she gave birth to two sons—Joseph and Benjamin . . . dying during his birth—according to Jewish tradition she was 36 years old at the time of her death.  Of the four wives, she is the only one not buried burial cave of the family . . . instead she was buried on the way to Bethlehem.

     According to the Jewish legend, Rachel was not buried in the cave because Jacob had prophetically foresaw that the Jews would pass by her burial place as they were being exiled to Babylon.  As the legend continues its story, as the captives passed by, Rachel would tearfully plead to God on their behalf: “Will you cause my children to be exiled on this account?”    The prophet Jeremiah, who foretold this terrible saga in the history of the Jewish people . . . who foretold the destruction of the Temple and the eventual exile to Babylon, might have alluded to this legend when he prophesied: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

     In the Old Testament whenever God made a covenant between an individual and God’s self, God would mark the covenant with a name change for the individual.  Thus God fulfilled the promise of a great nation to both Abraham and Jacob through the sons of Jacob.  Remember what name God gave to Jacob?  Israel.  For those of you who enjoy biblical genealogy, Jacob had twelve sons . .. of which two of them were Joseph and Benjamin . . . these sons become the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel . . . they are a homeless people, refugees in a strange land, when God calls them out of exile in Egypt to claim their own land . . . which they eventually do and the land is named Israel.  All this taking place long after the death of Rachel, but the thread is woven through the story . . . generations later, she would weep for her children . . . the children of Israel . . . as they are hauled off to captivity in Babylon.

     Which brings us to that reference once again in the Christmas story.  A part of the Christmas story that we did not hear on Christmas Eve was the part about the Magi . . . or what we commonly call the story of the three wise men or three kings.  These were those foreigners who had stopped by the palace of Herod to inquire about the birth of the new king of the Jews.  Surprised by their inquiry, Herod is a little perplexed because he was the king of the Jews . . . in his mind he is wondering if this was the signal that he reign as the king was soon to be over . . . but, nonetheless, he helped the Magi . . . gave them directions . . . and then, explicitly told them to come back, tell him where this newborn king was, and then he would go and pay homage to the child.  What we all know is that Herod had no plans to pay homage to the newborn king . . . he planned on killing his competition.

     As the story goes, the Magi were informed by heavenly messengers not to go back and tell Herod anything.  Joseph was also told by heavenly messengers that he was to take his little family and hightail it to Egypt . . . Herod was going to kill the child.  And, everyone does as they are told.  The Magi head back to their own homelands, they avoid going back to see Herod . . . Joseph takes his family to Egypt . . . and, well Herod, is a little peeved when he learns that no one did what he told them to do.  Angry he figures the only way to solve the problem is to kill all the male children, two years and younger, in Bethlehem and its vicinity . . . to massacre the children.

     The writer of Matthew’s Gospel then proclaims that the prophecy of Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

     Light casts shadows, and the light of God’s gracious gift of Christmas casts shadows upon the story as we know it.  It is in the shadows that the darkness lurks . . . it is in the darkness that bad things seem to happen . . . and, so it is with the Christmas story.  As we are reveling in the great joy of the Christmas story . . . the birth of a Savior, there are plots being conceived to kill the child . . . families are exiled to foreign lands . . . children are massacred . . . and, even when the threat is gone, fear still clings to the situation making the young family return—not to their homeland of Bethlehem, but instead to another district . . . the district of Galilee where they make their new home in the town of Nazareth.

     The truth about the rest of the story about Christmas is that it has a dark side . . . a dark side that we usually ignore or hurriedly skip over.  That seems to be a part of human nature . . . we do not gather to hear stories of death and suffering . . . no, we gather to hear the good stuff . . . the nice stuff.  But, remember, light casts shadow . . . even the light that breaks forth for all the world to see in the story of Christmas.  Life nor faith is as easy as it is often portrayed . . . it is not all black and white . . . there are always areas of gray as we journey the spectrum of life and faith.  Innocents die . . . people are exiled . . . plots are sprung . . . and, there is lamenting for the children.

     No one wants to throw cold water on the celebration of Christmas, but we would do well to heed the words of the past as they are shared in our reading this morning . . . the past of that first Christmas . . . the past of God’s story in the history of faith.  There is a dark side that must be considered, and maybe, just maybe, this is the gospel writer’s way of forewarning us and future readers that the joy of the Christmas story is shadowed by hard times yet to come.  The cross is still to come . . .

     . . . and there is hope.  There is hope despite the darkness of the story.  With perfect 20/20 vision we know how the story ends . . . we know of the triumph over the cross . . . we know of the fulfilled promises . . . and, we have hope.  Life and faith are adventures in which we never quite know exactly how we will get to the destination, but we know what and where that destination is.  We need to acknowledge that there will be days in which we will walk in the sunshine, and days when the gray clouds block out the light and darkness seems to be our constant companion.  Yet, there is hope . . . hope because we know the promise . . . we know the gift . . . we are not alone.  Immanuel . . . God with us!  God is with us, even as we pause in the darkness of the Christmas story . . . even as we encounter the darkness of life and faith . . . God is with us!  Amen!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Wonder Bread (John 6:25-35)

     I grew up on Wonder Bread . . . it was what I thought bread was supposed to be.  Wonder Bread was originally produced by the Taggart Baking Company of Indianapolis.  It made its debut on May 21st, 1921, after having run advertisements for a while that only stated that a “wonder” was coming on that day.  From that day on, Wonder Bread grew in popularity before becoming a national brand in 1925.  It was the perfect advertising campaign in that it caught the attention of the people and drew them in to purchase the product.

     As I stated, I grew up on Wonder Bread . . . 

     Wonder Bread fascinated me as a child . . . fascinated me because it was more than mere food, it was a toy too!  As you remember, Wonder Bread had that spongy, soft, malleable quality to it.  It always kept its shape.  You could place a watermelon on top of a loaf of Wonder Bread and it would spring right back to its original shape.  You could rip a piece of the bread off, shape it into a square, roll it into balls . . . you could dunk it in milk and it would never get soaked.  You could leave it in the bread box for months on end, and it would still retain its shape and freshness.  It always made you sit there and wonder, “Is this stuff really bread?”

     It was not until my young adult years that I was exposed to other breads.  It happened when I got married . . . the wife would tell me that Wonder Bread was not good for me.  That there was a reason for its wonderful resilience . . . chemicals, lots of chemicals.  Real bread, she told me, didn’t do that stuff . . . real bread got stale . . . real bread couldn’t be made into shapes . . . real bread did last longer than Methuselah.  And, besides, it had all of those chemicals that were not good for the human body.  Eventually, Wonder Bread disappeared from our pantry . . . and, from my life.

     Wonder Bread was a sort of “modern day miracle”.  This morning, the topic of bread . . . a sort of “wonder bread” . . . is again the topic.  If you read this passage from the start of chapter six, you would have seen that Jesus was pretty busy doing some amazing things.  Chapter six begins with him feeding the five thousand . . . feeds them with five loaves of bread and two fish . . . and, then has twelve baskets of leftovers once everyone is fed.  Then later that night, he takes a stroll on the lake . . . literally!  As the disciples are heading over to the other side of the lake, Jesus comes walking across the water to join them.  Two pretty big miracles set the stage for our reading this morning.

     The reading begins the next morning with a question and answer period with the disciples.  They are curious about Jesus.  In particular, they are curious about how he is marked by God to be the “One”.  They want to know if he is the “One” they have been waiting for according to the scriptures; and, if he is . . . what are they supposed to do.  And, Jesus answers them by talking about bread.

     In the story of the great exodus from Egypt and captivity, the sign from God was manna . . . bread from heaven.  Remembering the feeding of the five thousand, was that the bread that they were looking for from God as a sign?  The point of any miracle is not the actual miracle . . . not what happens, but to whom does the miracle point to.  All miracles point to something beyond themselves . . . typically to God.  Miracles reveal the spiritual . . . miracles reveal God.  And, that is what Jesus tells them.

     Jesus tells them that he is the “bread of life”.  This is not a physical bread that is to sustain them, but a spiritual bread . . . it is a “wonder bread”.  The bread that Jesus offers them never spoils . . . it always retains it shape and always bounces back . . . it never changes . . . it is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  It is bread that will always fill the soul.  It is the means of connecting with God.   Jesus declares to them: “I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”  Jesus is the original Wonder Bread.

     Bread is a central symbol of our faith as followers of Jesus . . . a central symbol of our faith as members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  It sits upon the table in the center of the sanctuary’s altar . . . a place where we gather together to remember . . . to remember the meaning of the bread as the means of relationship with God that comes through Jesus and his example.  Not only does it make us remember, it makes us think . . . we think about what that bread means to us as individuals, as a congregation, as the body of Christ in the world . . . we think about its power to provide us respite in a busy and frustrating world in which we live . . . how it strengthens us . . . sustains us.  It truly makes us “wonder”.

     That is the power of the bread . . . the miracle of the bread . . . it takes us beyond that which we experience and thrusts us into a different realm . . . the realm of life.  A life that can never be taken away from us if we embrace it and strive to live within it.  When you consider all of this, it is no wonder that this is truly Wonder Bread that sustains.

     We need this Wonder Bread.  That is why each and every Sunday morning the invitation is offered to all who are gathered here to come to the table and receive the bread and cup.  That is why each and every Sunday we celebrate this act of remembrance . . . this act of renewal and commitment . . . this act of life.  Jesus truly is the “bread of life”.  Our world’s Wonder Bread may have faded long ago, but the real Wonder Bread still lives.  It is here at the table we stand in awe . . . and, we wonder.  Amen.

With Us: The Fragility of Faith (Matthew 1:18-25)

“Human spirit is the ability to face the uncertainty of the future with curiosity and optimism. It is the belief that problems can be solved, differences resolved. It is a type of confidence. And it is fragile. It can be blackened by fear, and superstition.”
(Bernard Beckett)

     I think that the “human spirit” that author Bernard Beckett speaks about can be replaced with the word “faith”.  Faith is the ability to face the uncertainty of the future with curiosity and optimism . . . the belief that problems can be solved . . . differences resolved.  It is a type of confidence . . . but, it is fragile.  It is so fragile.

     Ask Joseph.

     Joseph, the carpenter, pledged to be married to Mary, has his world shattered upon learning that his future bride was pregnant . . . apparently pregnant by someone other than Joseph, the groom in waiting.  Dashed are all the dreams held by those who contemplate the beauty of marriage . . . who embrace the promise of the future . . . who see domestic bliss as the pattern of the rest of their lives.  Crushed . . . just like that . . . and, shattered . . . in anguish and shame, Joseph swore to do the proper thing; he would divorce her quietly and out of the limelight, and he would drift off into obscurity.

     And, would anyone think any less of Joseph?  Adultery at the time this takes place was not a crime that anyone would want to be accused of, nor found guilty of . . . the punishment was a vicious, violent death by stoning.  Surprisingly, it is still a punishment practiced in some cultures.  Years ago I watched a movie, based upon a true story that happened in Afghanistan not too long ago, in which a woman was accused of adultery and sentenced to die by stoning.  She was dragged out of her home, taken to a place where a hole had been dug, forced to stand in the hole as they buried her to her neck, and then proceeded to circle around her . . . and, then the stones began to fly.  It was a painful, violent death . . . the woman could do nothing to protect herself from the barrage of stone flung at her head.  Could anyone blame Joseph for wanting to quietly divorce Mary?

      Faith is fragile . . . and, I think that we all know that from our own experiences.  In over thirty years as a pastor I have witnessed and heard the stories of how fragile faith truly is.  I have seen the shattered dreams . . . I have witnessed the darkness of doubt . . . I have seen the tears, felt the pain, and seen the fear.  An unexpected death in the family . . . a child who runs away . . . a friend who loses everything to addiction . . . a spouse who quits . . . a job suddenly lost . . . an accident . . . an illness . . . depression . . . old age stealing the life of loved ones. Faith is fragile and we all know it.  We have seen how fragile faith is . . . and, we have experienced it in our own lives. 

     Faith seems to get lost when it becomes broken.  Joseph does what many of us would probably do . . . we become angry, we become sad, we cry . . . and, we try do whatever we can to right the sinking ship.  In Joseph’s case, he attempts to do what he thinks is best for everyone involved . . . he is going to set everyone free and allow everyone to fend for him or herself.  He is going to give up . . . he is going to quit; and, can any of us—put in the same situation—blame him?  Wouldn’t we do the same?

     But, God is not having any of it.  God is not buying into Joseph’s plan.  No, God has a completely different message and track for Joseph . . . he is to stick by Mary, marry her, and follow the course set before the two of them . . . they are to have a son, a son that they will name “Jesus”—because, says God, “. . . he will save his people from their sins.”

     Now, I do not know about any of you, but if I had been Joseph . . . well, I think hearing such an announcement would have floored me . . . floored me for a second time.  First time, the fiancĂ© is pregnant; second time, God telling me to scrap my plans and do it God’s way.  I would have thought to myself, what is God trying to do to me?  Every time I think I get something fixed, God messes up my plans, my hopes, and my dreams.  Again, the faith comes crashing down with a simple dream and message from God.  Yes, faith is fragile.

     What are we to do when our faith is shattered and lying on the floor?  What are we to do when everything that we held tightly to--to get us through the day—is broken and useless?  What are we to do when all that we know and understand suddenly doesn’t make any sense?  What are we to do when crash and burn on the journey of life, and there is still a long, long way to go before we are finished?  Well, we are to remember and believe.

     That is what Joseph was basically being told . . . remember and believe.  Yes, God told him what he was supposed to do . . . marry Mary . . . have a son . . . and, name him Jesus.  But, he was also told to remember . . . remember what the prophet had said . . . “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel—which means ‘God with Us’.”  Yeah, it happened to be Joseph’s virgin that God chose to fulfill the prophecy . . . did Joseph remember?  Through it all God promises that God would be with them all . . . Immanuel—God with us.  Joseph did as he was told to do . . . and, from there, as we know, the story escalates to be more than any of the key characters ever dreamed it to be.  But, through it all, they remembered and they believed because they rested upon the assurance that God would always be with them.

     So it is, as we enter the final days of our Advent journey . . . we affirm the fragile state of faith.  Despite our best held hopes and dreams for the goal we are about to reach . . . the birth of a Savior . . . we know that the story is far from finished.  We know that we are still a long way away from realizing the promise being fulfilled . . . of witnessing God’s Kingdom.  The journey of Advent takes us to the manger, but it points us beyond . . . our faith is tested . . . 

     But, like Joseph, it is in the fragility of our faith . . . in the brokenness of our faith . . . that we discover our faith by remembering and believing that God is always with us.  That is the truth about Christmas . . . that God is always with us.  Hang on, the journey is about to get challenging and exciting . . . Immanuel . . . God is with us!  Amen!

When Enough is Not Enough (Luke 12:13-21)

     The easy way out of this scripture reading this morning is to simply state that greed and hoarding is bad . . . sinfully bad.  The focus of the story seems to be on accumulating wealth and riches . . . getting more and more, because there is never enough.  That is what the rich man does, he accumulates wealth . . . lots of wealth.  Life is going to be lived on easy street where he can eat, drink, and be merry.  Then one night, God lets him know that he is going to die and die right then . . . so, God poses the question to the man: “What good is any of this if you are dead?”  That would be the easy way out of this scripture reading . . . don’t be like the rich man who only accumulated wealth for himself . . . learn to share!

     Most of the people I know in my life would tell you that they wouldn’t might having a little more in their lives when it comes to wealth . . . to money; but, at the same time, most of them would also say that they have enough . . . that they are really, deep down, pretty satisfied with what they have.  They would tell you that their lives are comfortable . . . their needs are being met . . . and, in reality, they have everything that they need . . . they have enough.  They are pretty content with where they are in life. 
     And, to be honest, I am probably right there with them.  For the most part, I have enough.  I am fairly content with what I have in my life . . . work that I enjoy . . . family and friends around me . . . money in the bank . . . a nice house to live in . . . plenty of food on the table . . . and, a beautiful to live.  Life is pretty good . . . yeah, I have enough.  What more could I want? 

     But what if God came a knocking on my door tonight?  What if God came and confronted me with my death as God did with the rich man?  What if God challenged my so-called wealth and me by asking, “What good is any of it if you die tonight?”  How would I respond?

     The problem with the story that Jesus is telling is that too often the listeners—us—focus on the wealth and riches part of the story.  I think that is a big part of the make-up of the society in which we live . . . a big part of the American dream . . . that “more” is better and that there is never enough to satisfy, thus we are to strive for more and more.  The focus is on the material wealth; but, that is not what the story is about . . . the story is about the individual and individual motivation.

     Back when sports card collecting was booming, our family got into the collecting craze.  The kids and I really got into the collecting . . . and hoarding . . . of sports cards.  Of course, Dad—who had all the money, was the kingpin of it all.  We are talking about me here.  I accumulated a wealth of sports cards and memorabilia . . . I was wealthy, filthy wealthy . . . and, my motivation was to get even more.  Hey, this was my future retirement fund we are talking about here.  I was the envy of my children and all of their sports card collecting friends.

     Value, I learned, is in the eye of the buyer . . . not the seller.  A sports card is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it . . . usually, not much.  One day it dawned on me that all of my wealth . . . all of my collection . . . was of no use if I did not share it.  Oh yeah, at first, I saw it as an opportunity to fill in the gaps of my collection with trades from others—but that was still not real sharing . . . real distributing of the wealth.  Then something changed, I started just trading and giving away.  I allowed my collection to dwindle . . . to lose value, but at the same time I discovered something more valuable.  I could help others and make them happy.  I no longer had to worry what would happen if I died tonight even though my retirement fund took a beating!

     It is not how much one accumulates that matters in the eyes of God, it is what you do with what you have accumulated.  God did not really care how much the guy accumulated, God wanted to know why he didn’t do something with it.  So, if that is the case, then when it comes to motivation, can any of us sit back and be content with what we consider enough in our lives?  Can we sit back and be passive noting doing anything with what we consider to be our wealth?  Is that enough . . . for us?  For God?

     God calls us out of what we perceive as our wealth . . . out of our “enough” . . . calls us out to do even more than we are doing.  Calls us out of our abundance to go forth and do something with what we have . . . because—remember, we all have more than enough.  Yeah, we might think that we have nothing in common with the rich man in the story that Jesus is telling, but the fact is we have everything to do with him.  

     God is telling us that enough is not enough when it comes to loving God completely and doing God’s will.  God wants more . . . more peace . . . more justice . . . more love.  God wants more compassion . . . more empathy . . . more reconciliation . . . more love.  God does not want us to sit back and be satisfied with what we have in our lives, thinking that we have enough.  No, God wants us step up and make a difference.  What good is anything we have if we were to die tonight?

     Over and over again, we affirm that which we believe as the followers of Jesus . . . that it all comes down to relationships.  Relationship with God . . . relationships with others.  That we are to love the Lord, our God, completely; and, that we are to love others.  That is about relationships, and relationships are the greatest wealth any of could ever accumulate.  There are never enough relationships.  That is what makes a difference in life . . . that is what we remember and makes us smile.  It is not what we perceive as being enough . . . that is of no use if it is never used.

     How are you going to answer God when that day comes?  Did you share your wealth . . . did you share yourself . . . and, did you make a difference in someone else’s life . . . in the world?  Enough is never enough when it comes to God’s love.  Amen.