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Saturday, December 21, 2019

On the Outside, Looking In

Longest Night Service

Luke 2:8-20 & John 20:24-29
“On the Outside, Looking In”
            I stopped at the local CVS last week and stood in line while “Joy to the World” played itself out over the speakers of the store. The guy behind me in line began whistling the tune of what sounded suspiciously like “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” Perhaps that was his subtle protest against the aggressive sentimentality and cheeriness present everywhere you go this time of year.
            The next store I stopped in, I found myself humming along to the soundtrack of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
            I was on my way to meet friends for lunch at a restaurant where we were serenaded by “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” during which drinks and appetizers arrived. Then, “The Little Drummer Boy” rum-tum-tummed his way through the main course, and a Celtic sounding “What Child is This?” accompanied our dessert-sharing.
            This weekend, lots of people are singing, humming, and whistling their way through countless carols and Christmas songs while shopping for last-minute gifts, and exchanging Merry Christmases and Happy Holidays with store clerks.
            Yet, here we all are tonight, gathered in this humble space on the “Longest Night “of the year, eager for the light to overcome our darkness.
            As the hustle and bustle and giddiness of the season continue to run their courses OUT THERE, in here we sing quieter tunes and sit for a time in welcome snatches of silent stillness.
In here we are safe from the frowns of friends who just don’t understand why we can’t just shake off the gloom and take on the cheer, or those who become uncomfortable sitting with our sadness.  
            As we gather this night, we hear the traditional recorded history of the first Christmas from Luke’s gospel. Angel voices fill the air in the story. “Glory to God in highest heaven” the heavenly host sing out. Shepherds head over to witness the idyllic, sweet scene surrounding the Holy family.
            But we also get this gospel of the doubting Thomas. Thomas, who missed the first visitation of the resurrected Jesus, and was deprived of the greeting Jesus gave to his disciples, “Peace be with you” Thomas, who, deep in his grief, couldn’t quite believe what he hadn’t seen with his own eyes. Like us, Thomas remains on the outside, not sharing in the joy of the other disciples, for the wonder of the resurrected Jesus doesn’t belong to him – not yet. Like us, Thomas has other feelings and realities crowding his mind and his heart – sadness, loss, grief – but not peace. As we might sometimes feel when confronted with the joviality of the season, Thomas is still on the outside, looking in.
            Like the ancients who may have wondered, “is this the time when darkness will finally overcome the light?” we might wonder if we will ever experience the beauty of the light in all its fullness again.
            We gather here tonight to acknowledge and name the darkness of our hearts and the iron grip of grief, even as we search for the joy of promised mercy and love to take hold deep inside us once again.
            Each of us have our own reasons for the sadness and Thomas -like doubt that are all too familiar right now; doubt that we will ever feel “normal” again, or will ever fully appreciate and celebrate life; or that Jesus can truly heal our grief and pain, creasing and penetrating the armor of our darkness.
            Whether your season of discontent comes from grief over the death of a loved one, or family relationships that are a mess, or loneliness imposed by geographic distance from friends and family, or your struggle with depression or the memory of traumatic events that scar your perception of this time of year, Jesus is here for you.
            The fact is, Jesus didn’t come for the have-it-all together and the perpetually joyful. Jesus came to reconcile the world to God and to gift us with unending light to dispel the darkness that exists for each of us.
In a world where you might feel like you don’t fit in, don’t belong, or are on the outside looking in, Jesus came, God incarnate, for you, and for all the hurting ones.
While gatherings, celebrations and joy surround you but feel terribly out of reach and you may find yourself in a river of memory-induced tears, know that the peace of Christ is for you, too – especially for you.
Like Thomas, perhaps you long to know what THEY know, to experience what THEY experience, or to believe that this weight, this pain, will ever be lifted. On this longest night of the year, Jesus stands here among us, despite the sometimes-locked door of our broken hearts. “Peace be with you,” he says in greeting. And with these words Jesus makes it possible for us to begin to have just a sliver of hope that truly, this is not all that there is for us.
Isaiah wrote that “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.” But that light began as a sliver of brightness that slowly grew until it became a beacon of hope and promise.
We come together tonight acknowledging that we need God’s light to shine in our darkness and scatter the hold of our doubt and fear. The losses that bring us here are many and varied but the thing they have in common is that they render us “on the outside looking in.”
But here is the thing: God never promised freedom from worry, pain and fear as we traverse this broken world. What God does promise is to meet us here. Whether this Christmas is “blue” because of a recent loss or a constellation of struggles, whether the season of being on the outside looking in is new for you or all-too familiar, wherever you are in your “dark night of the soul,” this – whatever you are experiencing right now – is where God’s light shines the brightest, the strongest, and the most piercing.
We come together tonight because despite our personal situations, there is one who has the answer for us – who is the answer to our situation – and his peace is a light that shines beautifully in humble trust and quiet joy. The light is Christ – the one of whom the angels sing, “glory!”
Jesus is God’s light for all the suffering of the world, and in grace, mercy and love, God never tires of shining that light for you.
Jesus is God’s response to our pain and our doubt. He is the answer of the ages, the one that assures us that nothing – not even our doubt – will separate us from God’s love. Jesus is the one whose own death and resurrection assures us that the losses of life will not overwhelm us.
Christmas is good news for you, even – and especially – if you feel like you are on the outside looking in. In divine love and mercy, in real flesh-and-bone presence, Jesus is the answer to all our suffering, our doubt, our longing, because God embraces us in our fear and our courage. God is with us eternally, in our life and in our death.
Therefore, with confidence, tonight we dare to remember those and that which we are missing. With his light, Jesus dares us to hope for and believe in the eternal reunion we will one day experience with all our loved ones. The cross of Christ dares us to believe that all that shadows our lives and burdens our spirits are healed in his presence, and to trust that in and through Jesus we are no longer on the outside looking in. The infinite reach and strength of God’s love and mercy surrounds, embraces, and saves us all.
In Jesus Christ there is healing and hope. So, it’s okay to be blue when everyone else is green or red; to be sad in the midst of merriment; to be joyful even as we grieve or feel sadness; to celebrate even in the midst of hard times; to share laughter even in the reality of loss.
Because of Jesus we are no longer on the outside looking in. Beloved of God, Jesus is our hope, and our heart’s delight. To him we belong. Amen.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Being Here "With Bells On"

Luke 1:39-55
Christmas cards have begun to arrive in the mail at our house, a happy reminder of the connections of family and friends we have scattered across the country and even across the ocean.
          These holiday greetings may serve as the most substantial – and sometimes the only – communication we have with some of the senders, yet the greetings seem as intimate as if we had seen each other just last week.
          Among the most precious cards we receive are those photo cards – you know the ones I mean, you probably get them too. Maybe you even send them.       
They come in many shapes and sizes. Some are “flat” cards and others are like the more traditional folded cards, with a verse or a story written on the inside. But they all bear the image or images of lovely faces, frozen in time. I love to look at these cards during the rest of the year.
          For our family and friends with children still at home the annual Christmas photo-card serves to chronicle how much children have grown and changed (and they aren’t the only ones, if you know what I mean!). Others bear the images of family pets, vacation spots, and photos of other significance in the lives of the sender.  
          You know that as the sender put this card together they probably scoured their collection of digital, Instagram and Facebook photos and other pictures from the past year, and they chose the very best ones; the ones with faces full of smiles and wishes for joy, love and peace, goodwill, good health and good cheer.
          A couple of years ago, there was one card that stood out as a bittersweet reminder of the true gift of this season, whether the sender realized it or not. Its significance remains with me to this day.
          The greetings came from an old neighbor of ours. I opened the envelope to discover not one, but two photo cards inside. The first prominently featured lovely pictures from the highlight of the year – the wedding of one of the sons of the house, along with other pictures of events leading up to the big day.
Contained in the same envelope, was another photo card. From the center of a collage of action-photos leaps forward the smiling image of our neighbor’s husband Lloyd, who had passed away that summer. Beneath his beautiful, broad grin, a caption read, “I’ll be there with bells on.”
          I can only imagine that Lloyd’s wife included this photo as a testament to the fact that although he is gone from our sight, Lloyd is still truly present in Spirit; in all the family gatherings, and in the hearts and memories of all who love him, especially during the holiday season.
          But as I contemplated the message for today another word came forth, that spoke of magnificent Good News for us and for Lloyd. And it cast new meaning on the caption beneath our old neighbor’s photo, “I’ll be there with bells on!”
          In the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth, both women pregnant with significance and promise, it is God who is “there with bells on.”
Hope and joy, prophecy and fulfillment are met together and cast the scene in song – Mary’s song, the words of which we all just read.
Yet, you have to admit, it’s an unlikely picture that we have here.
          Elizabeth, the over-the-hill, unassuming priest’s wife, carries within her womb the most improbable of gifts for herself and her aging husband.
Mary carries an even more unexpected gift, for who would believe that this girl of no particular significance, an unwed, teenage virgin, no less, might actually carry within her womb not only a child – but the very Son of God, conceived through the Holy Spirit? For heaven’s sake!
          And yet, as the older woman sets her eyes on her young cousin, the baby, John, dances in her womb, and his mother is filled with the Holy Spirit, as the angel Gabriel had foretold during the annunciation to Zechariah.
Moved beyond imagining, Elizabeth sings out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Then in wonderment, she continues, “Why am I so blessed that the mother of my Lord visits me? The moment the sound of your greeting entered my ears, the babe in my womb skipped like a lamb for sheer joy. Blessed woman, who believed what God said, believed every word would come true!” [The Message translation].
          And Mary, whose own heart was dancing, does the most amazing – and perplexing thing.
Had she been filled with doubt and angst, we would have understood it.
If she had expressed worry and fear, we would have been right there with her.
If she would have run in tears into the arms of her kinswoman, overcome with the burden placed upon her and the ridiculous situation in which she found herself, we would identify with her.
But in her humility, in trust and in faithful obedience to the will of God, what does she do?
Safe in the embrace of her kin, Mary can do nothing but extol the wonders of God as savior who fulfills the promise of the ages.
          And so, she sings out her own song:
          “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servants. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
          For the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”
On this Sunday, the messenger and the embodiment of God’s love are here with us, with bells on! They come together and through their earthly mothers, sing forth the promise of the ages.
          Mary is overflowing with praise for God, who has made it a habit to take down the powerful and haughty from their high places.
This God has rescued and will redeem her people. She knows this to be true because God has declared it through the prophets of the ages and more recently through an angel, to her.
Now, through her song, she declares God’s strength and mercy, mightiness and grace:
          God not only notices the lowly ones – the hungry and naked ones – the poor and disenfranchised ones – the powerless and the rejected ones – the immigrant and the refugee – the homeless and the unemployed – the diseased and the dying – the addicted and the mentally ill, the prisoner and the outcast, but God lifts them up.
God promises that our hope is not in vain.
God is here with bells on for the lonely and isolated, the hopeless and the helpless.
God shows up.
God does what God has promised to do.
          But that’s not all - God uses the most unlikely means – a virgin birth – to deliver up God’s mercy and salvation to all people. God uses the most unlikely of symbols – the cross – to redeem all the broken world to God’s righteousness.
          Mary’s song is a confession of the upside-down nature of God’s favor and love. Mary’s and Elizabeth’s songs together form a confirmation of hope and the fulfillment God’s promise.
          This song of Mary’s reaches across the millennia to us today. We may feel far removed from the action of our gospel story. After all, there are no pregnant virgins running around claiming God’s favor and mercy in 2019 – at least none that I know of. The meeting of two kinswomen in ancient Judah, might seem to us like a quaint but unrealistic story; a fairytale.
          But Elizabeth’s reactions, reflections and song invite us to reflect on the ways that God continues to act in our world. Because God is here, “with bells on.” The same God who saw his incarnation through a humble teenage girl’s whispered “yes” is at work in the world.
          Every time we reach out in sympathy, kindness, forgiveness and love toward those who struggle, hunger, thirst, or for any who are in need of love, God is here with bells on.
Every time we stand up for the underdog – the outcast – the disenfranchised, we act in accordance with God’s mercy and abiding Spirit, and we echo Mary’s “yes.”
Every time we tell our faith stories or testify to where we see or have experienced God’s work in the ongoing story Christ’s coming, God is here, with bells on. 
          We are surrounded daily by death and dying, yet this God who uses unlikely people and means to do the impossible, uses a cross to make a mockery of death and open the gates to eternal life.
          Like Mary, like Elizabeth, we too can declare that at the coming of the Lord Jesus, we will “be there with bells on,” because we are the unlikely recipients of God’s grace and promise.
          May we, like Elizabeth and Mary, trust that God is coming to save and free us. May we, like them, give thanks that through them the improbable, impossible, indescribable love of God has come into the world through a child whose first bed was a simple manger, whose coming is not for a season but forever.