Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Gifts in Unexpected Places

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 25, 2008

Year B: The Nativity of Our Lord
Isaiah 62: 6-7, 10-12
Titus 3: 4-7
Luke 2: 1-20

Christmas Gifts in Unexpected Places

So, how’s everyone’s Christmas been so far? Pretty good? Last night both services here were wonderful, despite the rainy weather.

I guess for many of us here it’s been pretty much like other Christmases. I guess most people have their own ways of doing Christmas. Some people come to church on Christmas Eve and then go home and maybe open a present or two and then it’s off to bed to wait for Santa.

Other people, I guess like a lot of us here this morning, get up early, maybe open up presents under the tree, go to church and then go off and be with families and friends. Each Christmas many of us cook and eat the same foods, we sing the same songs, and we carefully place the same ornaments on the Christmas tree.

So, of course, many of us have our Christmas traditions. You might even call them routines. And, let’s face it, most of us like our routines. We like our ways of doing things. We like things to be familiar. And that’s good, mostly.

Looking back, when I was growing up my family was pretty normal when it came to Christmas. Like most other people, we had our own traditions, our own familiar Christmas routines. One routine in particular sticks out in my memory. And it’s a routine that, looking back on it, probably drove my parents a little crazy.

Each year when my sister and I were little we would get up very, very early on Christmas morning and go to the living room to see the gifts that Santa had left for us under the tree. So each year, while it was still dark out, my sister and I would go through packages, opening up boxes and playing with our toys. This was our routine, it was familiar. My bleary-eyed parents would come downstairs and sit with us and ooh and ah at our gifts. Anybody else have a routine like this?

One year, though, for some reason my comfortable, familiar routine was changed. I’ll never forget it. Now I know, of course, we only have good children here at Grace. But, I’m sure sometimes parents here have warned kids that if they’re bad they won’t get any Christmas presents. Or maybe if they’re bad they’ll just get a bag of coal.

Now, I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but my parents used to say things like that to me! But, I never really believed it would happen, because each year, even if I hadn’t always been nice to my sister, or hadn’t cleaned up my room, or hadn’t done my homework, each year there were always gifts for me under the tree. But, I have to admit, although I didn’t think it would ever really happen, the remote possibility of no gifts for Christmas was always in the back of my mind.

Well, anyway, this one year I came downstairs in the dark hours of the early morning. Maybe my sister was still a baby, because I think I was alone. I came into the dark living room, my heart pounding with excitement. I turned on the lights. And I stood in shock and horror. There was nothing under the tree. The nightmare had come true!

What happened next is embarrassing. Since it is Christmas morning and we’re in church, let’s just say I “got sick.”

I guess my parents heard all the commotion and came downstairs to see what was going on. They took me by the shoulders, turned me a little, and showed me my gifts.

It turned out that for whatever reason this year my gifts were not in their usual place. Instead, they were just a few feet off to the side. But because, even as a little kid, I was so used to my familiar routine I had managed not to see the gifts that were waiting for me the whole time, just a little off to the side. It was like I was wearing blinders!

As a kid I learned the lesson “don’t panic, things may not be as bad as they seem.” But now as an adult looking back on that experience I realize that as much as we like familiarity, familiarity can be dangerous. Familiarity can prevent us from really seeing things. Familiarity can sometimes blind us to the gifts that we are being given in unexpected places.

The English writer from a century ago, G.K. Chesterton, once said, “The greatest of all illusions is the illusion of familiarity.” “The greatest of all illusions is the illusion of familiarity.”

Children can get caught up in familiar routines, but I suspect adults are much more susceptible to the illusion of familiarity. But if we really stop and reflect on it, what seems to be most familiar turns out to be the most wonderful, amazing, exciting gift.

Being wrapped up in our own familiar routines we can easily miss the gifts we are given in unexpected places.

And sometimes, like what happened to me long ago, our familiar routines get interrupted. And for many of us that’s happened this Christmas or in past Christmases. Some of us have lost beloved family members and friends. Some of us have lost jobs or worry if we will keep our jobs in the new year. For many of us anxiety and sadness have overshadowed or interrupted our familiar Christmas routines.

And, to say the least, this overshadowing or interruption can definitely be upsetting. But I believe that this overshadowing or interruption also offers us an opportunity to recover our sense of awe and wonder.

This interruption of the familiar just might make us open to receive the gifts we are being given in unexpected places.

In today’s gospel lesson, Mary is the ultimate model for us on how to recover our sense of awe and wonder. Obviously, there’s nothing familiar or routine about what’s happening to Mary. She is in the midst of the most extraordinary events. Nine months earlier an angel had greeted her with the news that, if she said yes, she would give birth to the Son of God.

And now she has received this most unlikely gift in a most unexpected place, and, on top of all that, Luke tells us, she been visited by shepherds who report an encounter with an angel and “a multitude of the heavenly host.”

And what’s Mary’s response to these extraordinary events? Luke says the people around Mary were “amazed” - which seems like a nice way of saying they all thought the shepherds were crazy. But, what’s Mary’s response? Luke writes, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

For most of us here, two thousand years later, what seemed amazing to the people around Mary is all too familiar. I guess the Christmas story is the most familiar story of all.

But if we follow Mary’s example and really treasure these words and ponder them in our hearts maybe this old familiar story can come alive with awe and wonder once again.

In thinking and praying about today’s sermon, I’ve been reminded of a sermon that Lauren gave a few weeks ago. In her sermon Lauren noted that because of the economy many of us are feeling more anxious and insecure than usual. In a sense, our familiar routines have been interrupted. But, her key point was that in the future we should remember what this anxiety and insecurity feels like because that’s how most people around the world feel most of the time. Our anxiety and insecurity can make us one with the anxious and insecure people all around the world.

I found an unexpected Christmas gift in that sermon from weeks ago.

Yes, the Christmas story is the most familiar of all. Yet, if we really ponder this story in our hearts, the unexpected gift we receive on Christmas is Jesus – fully human and fully divine.

The unexpected gift that Mary pondered in her heart so long ago was that in Jesus the God of the universe experiences what it’s like to be one of us. In Jesus, God experiences what it’s like to be a human being. In that helpless, stinky baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger, God experiences the helplessness we all experienced as babies – the crying out for food and milk – the complete dependence on others.

In Jesus, God experiences what it’s like to work with one’s hands, to have friends, to celebrate at a wedding, to give someone a hug, to laugh at a joke.

In Jesus, God experiences what it’s like to weep at the death of a friend, to be afraid about the future, and to be betrayed and abandoned.

And so, just as you and I need to hold on to our current experience of anxiety and insecurity to be one with the anxious and insecure people of the world, God holds on to the experience of being human and has become one with us in Jesus.

In Jesus, God really knows what it’s like to be a human being.

And in Jesus we know what God is really like.

So, when we are celebrating and joyful we are not alone - God is right there with us and God knows exactly how we feel.

So, when we are anxious and frightened we are not alone - God is right there with us and God knows exactly how we feel.

Let’s use the opportunity of this unfamiliar Christmas. Let’s recover our sense of awe and wonder. Let’s keep our eyes open and find the gifts that God gives us – gifts that we often find in unexpected places. Let’s help one another find those gifts. And, most of all, let’s ponder in our hearts the greatest and most unexpected gift of all – the gift of Jesus.


Sunday, December 07, 2008


Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 7, 2008

Year B: The Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
(2 Peter 3:8-15a)
Mark 1: 1-8


On this second Sunday of Advent we are reintroduced to John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mark – which most scholars think is the earliest of the four gospels, and is certainly the most barebones.

Truthfully, Mark isn’t very interested in John the Baptizer, as he calls him. Mark is really only interested in telling us about the life, ministry and meaning of Jesus Christ. So, Mark begins his gospel with the seemingly simple words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

This may be the beginning of the good news, but Mark is clear that the good news of Jesus Christ is what people had been awaiting for centuries. And so, in his gospel Mark immediately looks back into the Hebrew Scriptures and quotes from the prophet Isaiah. Actually, to be accurate, Mark includes verses from the Prophet Malachi and the Book of Exodus, along with Isaiah.

With a few quick quotes Mark economically reminds us that for centuries God had inspired prophets to call for repentance, and to point ahead to the Holy One who was to come.

And then Mark quickly introduces John the Baptist, not with much back story, but simply as the last in this long line of prophets: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Like so many of the prophets before him, John calls for repentance.

And like so many of the prophets before him John points ahead to the Holy One, the Messiah, who was to come. John says to the people, this baptism with water that I’m giving you is nothing compared with what the Messiah will give you – baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Now at this point, even for those of us who take Advent seriously, it’s tempting to get ahead of ourselves – to jump ahead to Christmas and the birth of the Messiah who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit. After all, let’s be honest, we know what happens next. We know the rest of the story – we know Jesus has already come and lived among us. We know the birth, we know the teaching, we know the death, and we know the resurrection. We know all this. But since Advent really is a season to be mindful, to pay attention, we need to resist the temptation to skip ahead to Christmas.

So, since we’re not going to skip ahead, what might John the Baptist have to say for us today? What might John the Baptist have to say to us – to people who know the rest of the story, to people who already know Jesus, to people who have already been baptized with water and the Holy Spirit?

John’s message is as timely for us as it was for the people of the First Century who came to be baptized in the River Jordan. We are called to repentance. And we are called to live in a way that our very lives point to Jesus – the messiah who has already come and continues to live among us.

In the gospels, it’s the Greek word metanoia that is translated as repentance. But metanoia means more than just repentance, it means changing one’s mind. That’s an expression we use a lot more than repentance, isn’t it? In fact, we’ve probably cheapened it a little bit with overuse. In fact, I’m sure you’ve heard people say things like, “You know, I changed my mind and decided to buy that beautiful basket at the 10,000 Villages fair after all”?

But, when you think of it, really changing your mind is something very deep, isn’t it? To change our mind means to radically revise the way see the world, to radically reorder our priorities.

Maybe instead of “change of mind” we should say something that we don’t say quite as often, something that sounds deeper. Maybe we should say “change of heart’.

That’s what the prophets called for. That’s what John the Baptist was preaching to those people who came to him for baptism He was calling them to change their minds, to change their hearts. When they came up out of the water they were to be radically changed, to be transformed - to have a change of heart. They – and we – are called to have a change of heart so that our very lives point to Jesus, the Holy One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

Now, I don’t know, maybe all this talk of metanoia - all this talk of a change of heart - sounds a little pie-in-the-sky. But, actually, if we allow God in to change our hearts, if we allow our lives to point to Jesus, then the consequences are very concrete and practical.

Here’s a quote attributed to Pedro Arrupe, who was the leader of the Jesuits from 1965 to 1983. I think he powerfully sums up the powerful effects of metanoia, the powerful effects of a change of heart. He says:

“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

Now, that’s metanoia, that’s a change of heart. That’s what John the Baptist was talking about out in the wilderness and that’s the message for us today. Open ourselves up to metanoia, open ourselves to a change of heart, allow our very lives to point to Jesus.

In her sermon last week, Lauren noted that the Church is counter-cultural. While the rest of society has long-since moved on to Christmas, we insist on this quiet time of prayer and mindfulness, Advent.

And if we continue to open ourselves up to change of heart then we will become more and more counter-cultural.

Let’s think about the so-called Christmas season. This is a time of year when our culture whips us into such frenzy with talk about “Black Friday” that 2,000 ordinary people could gather in the early morning hours outside a Wal-Mart on Long Island and, when the doors opened (at 5:00AM), horrifically trample a Wal-Mart employee to death.

Now, you and I may not have been waiting outside of Wal-Mart in the early morning, but, let’s be honest, most of us do get caught up in the materialistic frenzy of this “season.” That’s the message of the culture we live in: buy more, get the bargain, and don’t worry about the consequences. Just get it – and then you’ll be happy.

If we are to have metanoia, a change of heart, then we are going to be counter-cultural. There’s a group that was started about four years ago called “The Advent Conspiracy.” On their website they describe a conspiracy that stands up to our culture with four parts: worship fully, spend less, give more, love all.

Now that’s counter-cultural! Worship fully, spend less, give more, love all. That’s really opening ourselves up to a change of heart.

So what would an “advent conspiracy” look like around here? What would metanoia look like around here? What would a change of heart look like around here? How could we live so our lives point to Jesus?

Well, if we really open up ourselves to a change of heart, then church will be a top priority – being here for worship, inviting others to join us, giving to the church in a way that’s a real sacrifice.

If we really open up ourselves to a change of heart, maybe instead of buying some unimaginative Christmas gift, after this service we’ll fill out one of the outreach gift certificates and give a gift to a worthy cause in honor of one of our friends or relatives – a gift far better than any sweater.

If we really open up ourselves to a change of heart, the “Food for Friends” barrel right over there in the chapel will be overflowing week after week and Kit Cone will get tired of making the trip to Dover to deliver our donations.

If we really open up ourselves to a change of heart, then every line on our soup kitchen sign-up sheet will be filled and Marge Paul will wonder what is she going to do with all this food and all these volunteers.

That’s what a change of heart looks like.

And 2000 years ago on the banks of the River Jordan, John the Baptist called on the people to metanoia, to repent, to have a change of heart. And all these years later, you and I who have been baptized with water and the Holy Spirit are also called to have metanoia, to repent, to have a change of heart. We are called to make our very lives point to Jesus.

How we answer that call will decide everything.