Sunday, December 23, 2012

Notes from the Corner - Advent IV - Love for the Shepherds

Gypsy Shepherds
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The shepherds camped with their flocks outside Bethlehem were unloved men. No mother, no bride worried for them during the long nights. Perhaps they had a few shepherd buddies that they might trade stories with or meet at the tavern. But society in general overlooked these men. They were the ancient equivalent of today’s retail clerks or gas bar attendants: not faces or names most would remember.

But then the angel appeared to these men, announcing, “Today a Savior has been born for you” (Luke 2:10-12). The angel said this news would bring “great joy to all the people.” Joy for all the people must include those often forgotten or overlooked, folks like the shepherds.
We believe that Christmas means love, and we show that love when we share meals, cards, and gifts with family and friends. However, the true spirit of Christmas love is to love those whom nobody else loves, people like the shepherds. That’s the kind of love God shows at Christmas.

Snippet from Sunday - Christmas Means Love - December 23

This season is all about love. We could add the love we have for friends, the camaraderie we share with co-workers, the cookies we carry next door to neighbors, the warm handshakes and hugs and cards we give and receive after a church service.

As believers and followers of Jesus, we suspect that this strong holiday feeling of love must in some way spring from the birth of our Savior. But we’re left a bit puzzled when we have to explain exactly what the child born in Bethlehem has to do with young couples holding hands while they skate or pretty packages piled underneath a pine tree. How do we trace the connections down from the virgin mother and the angels and shepherds and wise men all the way to the joy we feel as we bake butter tarts and peppernuts and other Christmas sweets to share with loved ones?

Here’s the truth about love and Christmas: Jesus was born because of love and for love. Jesus was born because God loves us, and Jesus was born for the purpose of bringing God’s love to us. The good news of Christmastime doesn’t get any more simple than that. “God loved us and sent his Son” (Jn 3.16).

Every act of love in this season, and in every season, has the potential to echo or to reflect God’s greatest expression of love toward us. Sometimes our expressions of love mirror God’s love with a joyful holiness; sometimes what we think of love is barely a pale reflection, something in which we can recognize a trace resemblance to God’s love only with a lot of hard work and imagination. . .

What we often call love is a strange alloy. It’s part love--the kind of love God shows--and in large part something else. We mix in lust or fear or self-congratulatory pride. Sure, there are trace amounts of real love there, but mostly it’s our desire for possession or pleasure. There’s a bit of true love there, but it’s overshadowed by our fear of being alone, our fear that the other person will leave us. It’s polluted by how good we feel about ourselves for loving others so extravagantly.

What we need is some refining fire to purify our love. We need some North Star to set the compass of our love by.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump . . .)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Reflections on a Christmas Pageant - December 16

Kids bring us together. The tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, leaves us all strongly aware of this. Yesterday our congregation joined with folks around the globe, believers and non-believers alike, in praying for comfort and peace, an end to such violence, for the families in Newtown.

I feel almost a duty to write about the horror of school shootings, the absolute horror of a shooting in an elementary school. This violence, with an altogether new terror and repulsion, tugs at a deep place in my heart. I remember walking my high school hallways in the days after Columbine. I cannot fully tell my own story without recounting how the televised news of that violence changed me.

But these stories and laments were in part displaced yesterday by the implacable church calendar: The Sunday School Christmas pageant was scheduled for yesterday morning. We had given the hour of our worship service to the kids to tell us the good news story of Jesus' birth.

Part of me sees a difficult irony in this. Kids sharing good news in the midst of so much tragic news about children. But hope often sounds difficult and ironic in our ears (no one foregrounds the interplay of hope and irony better than John the Evangelist). 

The kids of our congregation toddled in their homemade shepherd's costumes, some with stuffed lambs clutched in one hand. Mary and Joseph stood silent and wide-eyed before their grandparents and parents in the pews, uttering a barely audible "Oh, okay" when the angel delivered news of Jesus' impending birth. King (or, in our case, Queen) Herod gave directions to magi who were not quite on stage yet. 

In short, their Christmas program had all the dear details, the amateur earnestness, that fill adults' hearts with comfort and joy during this season. When we sang our closing hymn, "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus," I was certain those in the pews had heard good news as surely as if the angel Gabriel himself had appeared in our midst. Parents beamed, directors and stagehands laughed with relief, children jumped up and down in excitement as they received their Christmas treat bags from their Sunday School teachers.

I stood back and smiled. The kids had brought good news to us: "A savior is born to bring peace to all people."

But, Oh, that we lived in that peace now. Through Advent we've sang a simple song, "Come, Lord, and Bring Hope." Each verse substitutes a new word for hope: peace, joy, love, life. In some ways, our God has already answered our congregational prayer: Jesus has come, Jesus was born, Jesus lived and loved, healed and taught, Jesus submitted to death, Jesus has even risen once more to life! Like the more traditional Advent carol, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," our songs in this season are in no small part a re-enactment, a remembering of longings our God has already filled.

But as I watched the kids' program from the sound booth, I had the dark realization that we do not have more than twenty kids in our Sunday School program. Most of the kids are elementary-aged. Peace is still far from us. So are hope, joy, love, and life.

I gave my closing thoughts to the congregation after the program. Throughout the weeks and even months leading up to Advent, I've felt strong conviction that this worship service was one in which to be forthrightly evangelistic. I prepared my reflection early in the week, before any of us would or could have imagined such tragedy would occur so near to us. (You can read my thoughts posted below, if you'd like.)

I delivered my closing message as I'd prepared it, unsure how to speak on tragedy without robbing the kids of their joyous presentation. But I'm not confident that I made the right decision. Perhaps, I think, I should have spoken more directly to the tragic irony of proclaiming hope and peace in violent times. I'd value your input. 

Let us pray and act for peace.

(You can read the full text of what I said after the jump . . .)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Notes from the Corner - Advent III - Joy for the Shepherds

The third Advent candle is pink instead of purple. The purple candles that burn on weeks one, two, and four remind us to prepare the way. The candle lit this week, however, reminds us to rejoice!

God’s Son comes to bring life, justice, peace, and plenty to the world. He heals the sick, comforts the sorrowful, provides for the hungry, and forgives the sinful. I can’t think of a better reason for a season of celebration.

Most renditiosn I’ve heard of the angels’ chorus for the shephed sets it to regal music, full of fanfare fit for a king. George Frideric Handel’s magnificent Messiah is one beautiful example. But I wonder if the joy of the angel’s message might be better set to a tune the shepherds might have danced to. “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to people whom God favors” is a lyric that should make our hearts laugh and our toes tap.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Snippet from Sunday - December 9 - Roadblocks to Peace

Every year I look forward to unwrapping the simple wooden characters from their newspaper and reenacting the Christmas story with them. The angel will stand over an empty manger near the tree. Mary, Joseph, and a donkey will begin their long journey toward Bethlehem, probably on a bookshelf across the room. The shepherds will be watching their sheep on a windowsill, and the wise men will be off in another room, looking for their star. Step by step, all will make their way across the room toward the manger scene where the Christ Child will be born.

One figure whom I never find in nativity scenes is John the Baptist. True enough, John didn’t gather with Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds in that Bethlehem stable. But neither did the three kings, and still they always manage to make an appearance in our miniature re-creations.

Without fail, however, John shows up in our Scripture readings for Advent. All four Gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--begin the story of Jesus’ life and ministry by telling us about this baptizing prophet who was sent to prepare the way for Jesus. Luke, who is our guide for this year’s Advent season, doubles the emphasis on John’s importance by telling John’s birth story alongside that of Jesus. We hear almost as much about Elizabeth, Zechariah, and their miracle baby John as we do about Mary, Joseph, and the truly miraculous birth of Jesus. We can’t read and hear all these stories without getting the feeling that there must be something important about John’s ministry of preparation for those of us who follow Jesus.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump . . .)

Notes from the Corner - Advent II - Peace for the Shepherds

The Forge, Francisco  de Goya (c. 1819)
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Peace is the theme of the second Sunday in Advent. When the angelic armies appeared on that starry night outside Bethlehem, they proclaimed to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people whom God favors” (Lk 2:14).

What sort of peace did God bring those sheep herders? What sort of peace could a newborn, still learning to cry and suckle, bring to these hard-working, wind-burned men?
True enough, their fists, staffs, and slings weren’t strangers to doling out an open range kind of violence to sheep rustlers. These shepherds probably bore the scars of a few scuffles with wolves or wild dogs. But, like us, they weren’t soldiers in anybody’s army. What peace does Baby Jesus bring for those of us whose most violent battles happen at work or at home or in the silence of our hearts?
Peace is not only about beating our swords into plowshares; it also means hammering our fear into love. The early morning cry of the infant Jesus was God putting on his blacksmith’s apron and saying, “It’s time for me to get to work.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Pastor At vs. Pastor Of vs. Pastor For

Yesterday I had a good time sharing a Christmas message for the Warman Mennonite Special Care Home's Christmas banquet. These sort of engagements are side-perks to being a pastor in a city that's still a bit of a small town in its heart.

After two musicians ended their fun, old-timey carols and Christmas favorites, I walked up to the microphone to introduced myself, "Hi, I'm Josh Wallace. I'm pastor of Warman Mennonite Church just down the road."

As I said those words, something caught in my mind. It was a preposition. "I'm pastor of . . ." I could have said "pastor at" or "pastor for" or even "a pastor in," and the whole sense of what I said would have changed.

Many of us grew up with a pastor-at mentality. A pastor is a pastor because she or he goes to an office in a particular kind of building. Insurance agents work at insurance offices, doctors work in medical clinics, fast food employees work in fast food chains. Pastors just happen to work in a church building. They are employees of a particularly religious kind of business.

I grew up more with a pastor-of mindset. A pastor is an official or caretaker for a specific grew up of people. The pastor is the "shepherd of a flock." He (only men were pastors in my world at that point) comforted and counseled. He confronted us with God's Word on Sunday mornings. He chaired elder board meetings. Pastor-of parallels the role of a principal in the school system.

Pastor-for came to mind only a bit later. While "for" might imply the same role outlined under "of," I can hear missional overtones in "for." If I'm pastor for my church, they have set me aside or commissioned me to do the work of pastoring for them. Perhaps a bit like a missionary or a social worker, I go out into the community and pastor any and all who need pastoring. In episcopal models of church, this might be reflected in the diocese paying a stipend so the minister can pastor a parish, whatever the parish's financial ability or inability to provide for the minister's needs. I like this idea, but if I begin to introduce myself this way, I'm not sure people will understand me. Besides, this seems to be a call the church-community needs to make (in our congregationalist polity), not one I can make for them.

The last prepositional option I'll mention is "a pastor in such-and-such a church." Truth be told, there are many pastors in this congregation. I'm not the only one caring for the hurting, instructing in discipleship, or praying for these people's lives and souls. Paul says to the Ephesians that when Jesus ascended to the Father, he gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be shepherds and teachers. Whether the others want to own up to it or not, I am one among many pastors in this congregation. I just happen to have a sign on an office door that points out the way I've been given to the community.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Snippet for the Seniors - December 3 - The Hopes and Fears of All the Years

Advent is the season of sermons for a working pastor. I mentioned that the local Mennonite Care Home welcomed me to bring a short message for their Christmas banquet. You can find the full text of that talk after the jump. Here's a snippet:

This afternoon I want us to think about how Mary’s baby boy is God’s answer to every one of our hopes and all of our fears.
Think about that. When we whisper to God in prayer those things we are secretly most afraid of or when we pray and tell God what we wish for so desperately, God’s answer is Jesus. Jesus, the baby in the manger; Jesus, the man on the cross; Jesus, the risen Lamb.
Jesus’ mother Mary had many reasons to be afraid. She was young and not yet married when an angel came to tell her that she would give birth to God’s Son. . . . 
When God speaks to us, we often feel unsure about what God’s message will mean for our lives. God spoke to Mary through the angel Gabriel. We often hear God’s voice through scripture or through hymns or Christian fellowship. God’s message meets in us all our fears and hopes. We don’t know if God’s message will calm our fears or if it will frustrate our hopes.

The folks at the Care Home were mostly born before 1930, mostly ethnically Mennonite, and mostly from of fairly conservative or even fundamentalist persuasion.

Normally I preach from my own remixed version the TNIV. I like that it errs on the side of gender inclusivity when translating, and I like that it speaks in a direct, understandable way. When it strays too far from the Hebrew or Greek, I take license to emend it.

But in light of my audience, I opted to quote the KJV. This is a contextualization issue, I think. I'm curious about your thoughts. I tweeted this question a week or two ago. But I'm still waiting for feedback.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump . . .)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Notes from the Corner - Advent I - Hope for the Shepherds

Source: Wikimedia Commons
I have been thinking about shepherds as we begin this Advent. Each of the four weeks of Advent has a traditional theme: hope, then peace, joy, and love. This first week, I wonder what those sheep herders in the hill country around Bethlehem would have hoped for.

Shepherds weren’t well-off, well-groomed, or well-respected. No child said, “I want to be a shepherd when I grow up.” They were the smelly, rowdy cowhands of ancient Palestine.
What did these men hope for? Did they dream of a different life--one with more security and fewer cold nights on look out for wild animals and sheep rustlers? Or did they simply wish for a better paycheck to spend at the Bethlehem saloon? My biggest question is how Mary’s newborn baby would meet those hopes, fulfilling some and dashing others.

What do we hope for--when we’re on the job, when we’re caring for our sick kids, when we wake up in the wee hours and are unable to get back to sleep? How does Jesus meet or challenge these day-to-day dreams and desires?

December 2 - A Link to Sunday - Guest Preacher :: Lift Up Your Heads

I spent this Sunday listening rather than speaking. Listening is a good way to hear God's message for us. True enough, I often am surprised to find God speaking to me while I'm trying to give God's message to the people from behind a pulpit (I bet you other pastors and preachers can vouch for that experience). But listening is so much better.

The whole congregation had the rich opportunity to hear my partner and companion reflect on the scripture readings for Advent I. These were some difficult texts: a section of the Little Apocalypse (Lk 21.25-36), a few short lines of Jeremiah, and Ps 25. She did beautifully.

You can read her sermon over on her blog, la fleur épuisée. I encourage you too. It's a valuable 

Here are two snippets from her thoughts. First her thesis statement:
The message I think the Spirit wants all of us to hear is this: the very act of expecting something transforms us; waiting with hope changes who we are in the meantime.
 And then my favorite paragraphs:
But Jesus says, “When these things--when these signs of a falling-to-pieces world--begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Stand up, he says. Lift up your heads. Your redemption is drawing near.

Don’t cower in the basement or the bomb shelter; don’t fight for the last gallons of milk at the grocery store; don’t sit with your eyes glued to the TV, bemoaning the fate of civilization as we’ve known it. Do not fear. Do not worry. Stand and lift up your head: open your eyes with hope, because the kingdom of God is nearby. Watch for it, even now. Notice the signs of God’s commonwealth--sparks of justice and peace and kindness and abundance--even as you also see the anguish of this planet and its people.
 Check it the rest at her blog.
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