There He Goes Again!

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights ended 2019, as did much of the rest of the church of Jesus Christ, by hearing the awful news of the “slaughter of the innocents” as described in Matthew 2:13-23.  The second reading was Hebrews 2:10-18.  

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the player below:

Well, you almost made it.  Almost, but not quite.  You did very well, I must say.  You’ve survived the gauntlet of Christmas.  For some of you, it was tough, I know.  You didn’t know how you’d get through – it was so foggy, and there was so much going on, it seems.  Maybe you had some time with friends.  I suspect you spent some time alone.  And perhaps you managed to temper, for the most part, your great expectations for the entire holiday season.  And even if you can’t say you can say had a great Christmas, you made it.  And now you duck in here to close out the year, you come to church looking for a little peace and quiet, one last shot at “good will toward men,” and perhaps a couple of carols, and the preacher goes a pulls something like this.

Pulpit image in the Cathedral of Pisa, Italy, carved by Giovanni Pisano 1302-1311.

What kind of gospel reading is this, anyway?  You’d think that once — just once, we could come into church and not have somebody bleeding all over the carpet.  What is it with this place, anyway?  Why is it that every time we open the Bible, somebody’s dying, somebody’s smiting, or somebody’s getting smitten?

And while I’m at it, this is some God, too.  It wasn’t a month ago that we opened the scriptures and found Mary singing the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord . . . He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly;  He has filled the hungry with good things.”  We sang with her on December 15: “My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the world is about to turn!”  Were you here? Isn’t that an amazing song, and a better word from the Lord?

Massacre of the Innocents, León Cognlet (1824)

So excuse me for asking, but is this the same God?  Mary, are you sure?  Who is going to tell that to those mothers in Bethlehem?  Who was on duty in heaven the day that old Herod went through Bethlehem and killed all those kids?

What about the pictures on the front of all those Christmas cards?  What about GENTLE JESUS MEEK AND MILD?

I’ve got to tell you, this is a hard text for me to listen to this week.  For a long time now, I’ve been aware that the Christmas story ends with this reading.  For weeks, I’ve been walking around it, sticking it here, probing it there.  For the most part, it’s defied me.  I come into my devotional time and it sits there and laughs at me.  “All right preacher, what will you do with me????”

I have not been able to escape from the wailing of those mothers.  Everywhere I go, I hear that loud lamentation — during dinner, walking through the Heights, in the hospital, watching the news, at the Funeral home, laying in bed trying to get some sleep.  Everywhere I look, I see the mothers and I hear their wailing.  I ask myself, didn’t Jesus come to bring hope?  To share joy?  How is it, then, that this first Christmas has cost the town of Bethlehem so dearly?

Massacre of the Innocents, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1566). The artist re-imagines the scene depicting an attack on Flemish families by Spanish soldiers and German mercenaries in the Eighty Years’ War.

And maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if somehow I could leapfrog to the end of the story and see Jesus trashing Herod soundly.  But you know what happens — they get Jesus, too.  Mary’s voice is added to the chorus of mothers weeping for their children.  And as far as I can tell, the innocents keep getting slaughtered.  There’s Jesus, yes.  But don’t forget Stephen.  Paul.  Joan of Arc.  Dietrich Bonhoffer.  Martin Luther King.  The children from Sandy Hook School.  Millions of other women and men and children — all killed.  It sure is a funny way to bring in a kingdom.

So I sat, and I glared at the text.  Suddenly, it came to me.  Why don’t I skip this one?  Preach out of something else, Dave!  Forget about all that gory stuff.  My fingers fairly flew as I rifled the pages from Matthew to Revelation.  But the story stayed with me.

And then it hit me.  The news in Matthew’s story is not that some cut-throat dictator had a couple of dozen babies killed in a fit of jealous rage.  Heck, Herod was a thug through and through – he had killed 300 of his court officers.  He had iced his own wife and three of his sons.  In his dying breath, he arranged for the killing of all the leading citizens of Jerusalem.  No, it’s no great surprise that tinhorn power-mongers get violent.

Here’s what is news:  that God cares about those babies that died.  And God cares about Paul, and Joan, and Martin, too.  And God cares about children stuck in cages and South Sudanese whose lives are imperiled every day.  You heard it in the reading from the epistle: Hebrews tells us that because of his own sufferings, Jesus is able to remember yours and mine, and that he is able to help us bear the load of grief.  The news in this story is that God knows where you and I hurt.

Dove of the Holy Spirit, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (ca. 1660, stained glass, Throne of St. Peter, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican)

Jean Vanier, in his wonderful little book From Brokenness to Community , describes how our discovery of our own pain can lead us to God.  “The cry makes us touch our inner pain.  We discover our own brokenness and the barriers inside of us . . . It is when we have realized this that we cry out to God.  And then we meet the ‘Paraclete’ whom Jesus and the Father have promised to send to us.”[1] We often translate “paraclete” as the comforter, or the Holy Spirit, but Vanier points out that it literally means “the one who answers the cry.”  He suggests that it is not possible for us to receive the Holy Spirit unless we cry out, and unless that cry comes from the awareness of our own brokenness and pain.

And that’s a dilemma for us.  How is it that we cry?  And how is it that we are heard?  And why is it that there is often such a long time between the cry and the recognition of its being heard?  There are so many ways to look at this.

I am, to many of you anyway, a friend.  I am your brother in Christ.  And in the context of that relationship, I am one who cries out.  You have helped me to find the broken places in my own life and to raise them, sometimes with cracking voice, to God.  Many of you in this room have pointed me toward hope when I wasn’t sure where to look.

And I am a pastor to you as well.  It has been my privilege to cry with you, to struggle with you, to wait with you as together we look for meaning in the face of suffering.  You have invited me into deep, sometimes dark, sometimes frightening places in your world and asked me to stand with you while something unimaginable was happening.

But this day I am also a preacher, and I have the honor of announcing that in the end, cries are heard and comfort is felt.  The hard part is, that sense of peace can only come after the shock is gone, after the sobbing has muted, after the wrestling match with God is over.  Perhaps you have heard of a young man who received substantial injuries in the Civil War.  For the rest of his life, he cried to God, asking to know where God was in the midst of his pain.  At the end of his struggling, he is said to have penned these lines:

I asked for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak that I might obey.

I asked for health that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity that I might do better things.

I asked for riches that I might be happy; I was given poverty that I might be wise.

I asked for power that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness that I might feel the need for God.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life; I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

I have received nothing I asked for, and yet everything that I hoped for.

My prayer is answered.

Where are your deep aches this day?  A dream unfulfilled?  A cancer-ravaged friend?  A vacant chair at the breakfast table?  A lost job?  A broken marriage?  Welcome to the family, dear friend.  Your cries have been heard, and they are remembered.  And you can be re-membered.  I like that word: re-membered.  Often, we use it as the opposite of “forgotten”.  We say, “Oh, no! It’s your birthday! I forgot! I can’t believe I didn’t remember.”  But it’s also the opposite of another word: dismember.  When we dis-member something or someone, we take it apart, often with violence, hatred, or evil.  Dis-membering is cruel and gruesome.  We have, some of us, been dis-membered in a metaphorical sense; we have had bits of ourselves hacked off or plucked out or walk away.  But as your pastor, I am here to tell you that those who have been dis-membered will be re-membered.  What has been lost will be found, and what has been cut off will be restored.

Christ in Limbo, Fra Angelico (c. 1442)

You know, Matthew is the only gospel to mention the slaughter of the innocents.  Perhaps it’s not too surprising, then, to note that when the Gospel writers talk about the resurrection, Matthew is the only one to mention that when Jesus rose, “the tombs also were opened, and the bodies of many of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised … they came out of the tombs and appeared in the holy city” (27:52

Sheesh — there he goes again.  Why is it that I can’t even walk into this place without dead people rising up?  It’s so messy, so confusing all the time.  Why can’t they just stay dead?

No.  Not with Jesus.  The bad news is that we’re all dead or dying in one way or another.  The good news is that Jesus gives us life each day – in spite of the death that we share.

So when you walk into this room, remember, that yes, it is a room of death.  We do wind up bleeding on the carpet a good deal of the time.  But remember, too, that it is a room of resurrection.  The cross is empty and the table is set.  We have the promise of our brother, Jesus, that death is not the end, but rather a gateway to resurrection — for children who die too soon, for saints, for me, and for you.  Do not marvel that we die, or that difficulties come; be grateful that we have lived!  Thanks be to God for the gift of life and the promise of hope to come! Amen.

[1] From Brokenness to Community , Paulist Press, 1992.

Finding Her Voice

Each Christmas Eve, it is my privilege and delight to look for, write, and tell a new Christmas Story to the congregation.  There are a lot of reasons why this is important to me, some of which are explored in the introduction to my book of collected stories entitled I Will Hold My Candle And Other Stories For Christmas (available at Amazon and other online book sellers).  This year’s story is set in Central Africa and is informed by my many opportunities to visit there.  Our candlelight service included many of the traditional songs, a few new ones, and some scriptures that point towards those who watch for, and announce, God’s activity in the world.  This year’s story was influenced by a number of stories it’s been my privilege to encounter in recent years, and is anchored in the declaration and promises found in Isaiah 40:1-9

As with nearly all good stories, this one is best heard aloud.  To hear this story as told in worship, please use the media player below.

What’s in a name?  Or, more to my point: what’s in a nickname?  Often a nickname can be ironic, as when the 350 pound security guard is called “Tiny”, or the way that people sometimes call a bald man “Curly.”  A nickname can be cruel or sarcastic, such as when the kid with dental problems gets referred to as “Bucky” all through middle school.  But sometimes, well, they just fit.

That’s how it was for Bertha Evans.  She was named after her grandmother, who lived next door, and even when she was a baby, “little” Bertha was called “Byrdie” so that people knew which Bertha they were talking about.

When someone carries a name like Byrdie, you might think that person is musical.  In this case, you’d be right.  I don’t know this for certain, but it’s been said that Byrdie learned to sing before she could speak.  Growing up, people would say, “Oh, Byrdie, you were born to sing!”  As she matured, she developed a lovely, flowing soprano voice that would put an angel to shame.  Her nickname became even more appropriate when at the age of 24 she married a man named William Finch.  That’s right.  From then on, she was Byrdie Finch.

Now, because she had been born blind, Byrdie didn’t read music in the traditional sense.  However, between recordings and Braille sheet music, there was nothing that she couldn’t tackle vocally.

She sang in a couple of bands when she was younger, and people say that she could have “made it”, but I always had the sense that she wanted to sing mostly because it made her happy, not because she wanted people to clap for her.  In recent decades, she’s sung most frequently in the church choir.  On occasion, she could be counted on to offer the Anthem or “God, Bless America” at a sporting event or parade.

Byrdie would tell you that she had a great life.  Her marriage seemed really healthy; her children were everything she’d hoped that they could be; she had a fulfilling career and great neighbors… Yes, life was just perfect… right up until the point that it wasn’t.

It was a January evening a couple of years ago.  She was heading home from the Arena, where she’d been asked to sing the National Anthems for the hockey game.  A drunk driver T-boned the car in which she was riding, and for a while it seemed as if that would be the end for Byrdie.  She lingered in the ICU for ten days, dealing with broken bones and massive internal injury.  She endured several surgeries in that precarious fortnight.  And then, she emerged from the twilight and regained herself.  The doctors were pleased not only with themselves, but with Byrdie’s recovery.

There was just one thing: while she was in the ICU and enduring those surgeries, they had to put a breathing tube down her throat.  I don’t know if you’ve ever had to have one of those, but I’m here to tell you that as essential as they are at times, they are anything but comfortable.

When Byrdie came out of the ICU and was removed from the respirator, she struggled to speak. The physicians assured her that it was normal, and that there had been a great deal of trauma, and that if she was just patient, everything would work out all right. Well, she tried hard to be patient, but things were most assuredly not all right.  Three weeks after the tube was removed it was all she could do to whisper.  After two months, they did some tests and determined that the intubation had damaged her vocal cords.

By April of that year, Byrdie was pretty much out of the woods in terms of her major injuries.  That allowed her time to undergo a series of surgeries on her vocal cords and voice box in an attempt to restore her speech.  She tolerated those procedures well, and before long she was able to get around much as she had prior to the accident, and was fully independent – or should have been.  The problem was that her frustration with her voice was so significant that it plunged her into a deep depression.  Byrdie could have left the house, and she could have rejoined her social circle, and she could have attended her granddaughter’s preschool graduation – in fact, she could have gone back to much of her own life – but to do most of those things, she had to talk, and there was nothing she disliked more in those days than the sound of her own voice.

As the months went by, that voice regained strength, but it was most definitely not the same.  It seemed to have dropped at least an octave.  People did not recognize her voice: when she she answered the phone, people thought it was her son. She was ashamed and embarrassed.  She spent most of that summer, alone and silent, on her back porch. There, she did a little reading, a little knitting, and a lot of sitting.

In September, her neighbor and friend, Naomi Jones, invited Byrdie to a lecture at the Museum of Natural History.  She wasn’t crazy about it, but Naomi was persistent and without even knowing the topic, Byrdie capitulated and trudged along to the fourth row of a lecture she didn’t want to hear, on a subject she didn’t know, being offered by a scientist she’d never heard of.  Byrdie was, for all intents and purposes, a “captive audience”.  “The things I do for you, Naomi”, she mumbled as she waited for the thing to end.

Passerculus sandwichensis – Savannah Sparrow

Except something caught her ear.  The presenter was a young researcher from a Canadian university who was reporting on some field work he’d done recently.  His team visited a secluded island on the Canadian coast with the aim of determining whether it was possible to teach adult songbirds a new “language”.  He presented a lot of complicated methodology and science, but the thing that fascinated the folks at the Audubon Society was this: a significant percentage of adult savannah sparrows successfully learned “new” mating calls over the course of a summer. The ornithologists played recordings of a different population of this species over and over and lo and behold, the local birds started picking up on the new tunes.[1]

When the lecture had finished, the researcher seemed quite pleased with himself, Naomi felt a burst of accomplishment at having coaxed Byrdie out of her back yard, and Byrdie, well, Byrdie was quiet… which was nothing really new.

Here’s what I do know: that three weeks after the lecture, the new choir director called Byrdie and invited her to choir practice.  She laughed at him and then hung up.  A few days later, the pastor called.  “Byrdie, be honest.  You have a voice.  It’s not the voice you’ve always had, and it’s going to take some practice – but we both know that you’ve forgotten more about music than any of the rest of that bunch will ever learn.”  There was a pause, and the pastor added, “And besides… I know how much you love Handel’s Messiah.”

Oh.  Messiah.

If you had ever heard Byrdie sing, you would have thought that the soprano part of Messiah had been written with her in mind.  I mean, when Byrdie sang out recitatives like “and lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them” and “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God…”, well, no matter who you were you were ready to launch into the chorus of “Glory to God!”  In that community, Byrdie Finch was synonymous with Messiah.  And now someone else was going to voice the angel.  It was more than she could bear.  However, she agreed to attend the practice, and offered to do what she could to coach the soprano section, but she knew that she’d be unable to sing a note.

When the evening of the rehearsal came, however, the choir faced an unexpected challenge.  Due to the fact that several members had gone off to college, one had moved, and another had a nasty cold, there was not a single alto in attendance at choir practice.

Did Byrdie remember the lecture about the savannah sparrows?  Did Naomi nudge her? I don’t know.  But I do know that Byrdie didn’t leave, and that she said that if she could get her new voice box to cooperate, she’d try to sight read the alto line.  And so the rehearsal began.

The tenors started, as always, by singing about God’s comfort, and about valleys being exalted.  About halfway through that piece, it occurred to Byrdie that the first time the altos sang anything in the entire Messiah was when they, and they alone, would announce “And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed…”  When that piece starts, there is no chorus to hide behind, and no heavy instrumentation to lean on – just the pure tones of the alto voice – a voice that Byrdie wasn’t sure that she had.  And in her anxiety, she requested that they skip that number for the first rehearsal.  And, as it turns out, for the second.

But here is what happened: as each rehearsal began, she listened to the tenor.  I mean to tell you, she listened.  Even for a person like Byrdie, for whom listening was a lifeline on a minute-by-minute basis – she listened to the words of the tenor.  And she heard.

Byrdie heard in those ancient words that God’s desire is that creation be comforted.  She heard, as if for the first time, that reconciliation was at hand.  She knew that voice crying in the wilderness, and she dreamed of mountains being made low, valleys that were exalted, and rough places that were made plain.

The words stuck with her – a voice, crying in the wilderness.  She thought about the immense and intense work and effort of reconciliation and healing.  She went back and she read and re-read Isaiah and came to understand that the line to be voiced first by the alto about the glory of the Lord being revealed could only be heard after the tenor sang of the years of suffering and estrangement and pain and injury and loss.

Sitting in the upstairs choir room listening to her old friends do their level best to master one of the greatest musical scores of any age, Byrdie finally grasped this truth: that the glory of the Lord is revealed to people who have lost – and then found – everything.

For her entire life, Byrdie had been in such a hurry to be the angel singing of glad tidings that she had missed out on the fact that valleys were not exalted in a day and mountains were not brought low overnight.  After her accident, and after losing her voice, and after losing herself… she knew the truth she had always known, but she somehow understood it more deeply – that in the midst of great loss and pain to the point of being incapacitated – at that time, and to those people would the glory of the Lord be revealed.

She had known the lyrics since she could read: “And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together – for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.”

And in that room, she finally knew the score.  All flesh shall see it together.  Don’t think that line was lost on Byrdie Finch, either.

And so for the rest of the Fall, Byrdie continued to spend time on her back porch.  Only now instead of knitting, she had her tablet out, and she was listening to, and then singing along with, some YouTube videos that featured the Alto parts for Handel’s Messiah.  She found that as her familiarity with the part grew, her voice sounded less grating.  She began to talk more, and even laugh. She read stories to her grandchildren again, and found that she was even looking forward to choir practice.

On the last Sunday of Advent that year, Byrdie Finch walked with the choir, as usual, to the front of the sanctuary.  And for the first time ever, she sat to the far rightof the chancel – where altos sit.

And after the plaintive wailing of the tenor, the crying in the wilderness, and the promise that literally moves heaven and earth, Byrdie sang out in an alto voice the words she had come to love.  And what the altos started, the choir finished – adriving chorus in ¾ time, written in A major with an Allegro tempo, announcing the coming glory of the Lord.

A few moments later, Byrdie took the congregation to new places with a solo they had never heard her sing before: “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, lift up thy voice with strength: lift it up, be not afraid: say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!”

Because Byrdie knew.  She had lived through the exile, borne witness to the glory of the Lord, and knew that she could, without fear, lift up her voice with strength and even encourage others to do the same.

And you might think that is the end of this story, and it might be an appropriate place for me to stop.

Except for this: you see, Byrdie retired earlier this year. Like a lot of folks in their sixties, she thought that she’d find all sorts of things to do.  She read.  She puttered around the house.  She played with the grandkids.  And she loved all of those things.  But she wanted something else.  Something more.

So now she volunteers twice a week.  Byrdie Finch is a docent at the Aviary – one of those lovely people who greet you, who help you to learn something about a particular bird or perhaps locate a species if you’re in one of the large rooms.

You might be surprised to find a blind person guiding a bunch of birdwatchers. Some of them sure are – and others have no idea that she can’t actually see what she’s talking about.  Someone will say, “But where are the blue-bellied rollers?”, and Byrdie will listen, and then point in the direction of those gorgeous creatures.  Photos will be snapped, children amused, and tours will continue.

And every now and then someone will see her name tag and say something like, “Byrdie Finch eh?  Wow, you were born for this!”

“I don’t know whether I was born to do this or not,” is her standard reply.  “But I know that I can, and I will gladly do it today.”

After everything, Byrdie Finch has learned to find and to point others toward beauty and comfort.  She never dreamed she’d be singing alto or spotting birds, but in the midst of the valleys and the mountains the glory of the Lord was revealed to her and through her.  And after traveling through all the valleys and the mountains, Byrdie Finch learned a new song. My hunch is, so can you. So can we all.  Thanks be to God whose glory is revealed!  Amen.

Listen to the Glory of the Lord as sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir…

[1] So this really is a thing: you can learn about it here: https://www.audubon.org/news/an-experiment-teach-sparrows-new-songs-proved-wild-success

The Little Things — A Christmas Story

Every year it is my practice to write a story that will explore and, I hope, deepen the meaning of Christmas for those who are present in worship.  Many of these stories have been collected in a volume published in 2011 by Lulu press entitled I Will Hold My Candle and Other Stories for Christmas.  If you’d like to know more about that book or how to purchase a copy, please simply click here.  In 2016, we experimented with making a live feed of our worship service.  I am not sure how long it will remain up, but if you are a Facebook user you might find it on my Facebook page.  The text for this story is an unusual one for Christmas: I Corinthians 1:26-31.

I met Wayne Barker in an unusual place. I had stopped to fill my tank and I looked across the parking area at the service station and I saw an enormous man crawling around on his knees. I wandered over to see if I could help, and he was muttering to himself… using mostly words that are not common in church. I asked if there was a problem and he looked up and said, “Yeah, I think. I mean, I don’t know if there’s a real problem or not but that little screw cap from my tire fell while I was adding air, and now I can’t find it. Why do they make those things black anyway? Isn’t every gas station parking lot in the world black? And they are so small!”

So because I didn’t want to appear insensitive, I gave the area at least a cursory glance, but it was so rainy that I was relieved when he stood up and said, “Sheesh. Forget about it. I’m sick of these pebbles grinding into my knees, and besides, I must have some sort of slow leak. I’ll get a new one when I get the tire fixed.”

Perhaps like a lot of big guys, Wayne isn’t good at little things. If you were to see his dresser at home, you’d see that it’s covered in an ocean of “small”. Pennies and paper clips, loose keys and nuts and bolts are heaped in piles, waiting for someone to be attentive.

Wayne Barker is a “big thing” guy. In his work as a heavy equipment operator, he lives in an oversized world. The tires are bigger, the holes are deeper, the sounds are louder… and all of that is OK with Wayne.

When he’s not moving huge piles of dirt with enormous machines, Wayne is shaping trees into objects of beauty. The day I met him the back of his truck was filled with rough-hewn maple. He told me he was on his way home to spend the weekend turning that wood into a queen-sized rocking chair.

You see, his only daughter, Megan, was pregnant. With twins. He had already made a special crib for her – it was, essentially, a “double wide”. There were two sides, and space for two mattresses, but the babies would be able to reach through and touch each other if they wanted to. He hadn’t planned on making a rocker, but he was fed up with what he called “discount store cheapies”, and apparently he’d been to Megan’s home twice already to measure the doorways. He wanted to make sure he was building the absolute biggest chair that could fit into her home.

When Wayne starts something, he’s all in. That would explain why he didn’t leave the house after he got home that Friday afternoon. He was building. Cutting. Sanding. Joining. Making the world’s greatest daughter – the world’s most important mom-to-be – the best rocking chair in the history of furniture.

But at about 4 on the following Monday morning, his plans went awry. He was awakened by a call from his panicked son-in-law, who simply said, “We’re at the hospital. Get here as soon as you can.”

Wayne flew out the door and was immediately confronted by a flat tire on his pickup. Evidently the leak we’d seen on the previous Friday had gotten worse over the weekend, and the vehicle was not drivable. He let out an involuntary scream (again, using language I’ll not repeat here). At that moment, his neighbor arrived home from his shift as a taxi driver. When Wayne explained the situation, the man immediately said, “Get in!”

That made Wayne a little uncomfortable, because he’d never really spoken to his neighbor before. He was from India, or Pakistan, or Bangladesh or somewhere, and he was a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Sikh, or something. Wayne had always thought of him as being odd, and yet here he was going out of his way to help.

When they got to the hospital, Wayne pulled out his wallet but the neighbor waved him off, saying, “This? This is a little thing. Go inside. Go!”

When he got inside, he was, himself, smaller than he’d ever been. There were lights and noises and people rushing in and out. Wayne didn’t understand everything, but what he did understand scared him to death. Apparently there was a problem with the blood flow to the babies, and unless they did something, at least one of them would die before it had a chance to be born.

His daughter told him that they were going to do something called Laser Ablation. Using an impossibly skinny needle, the medical team inserted a small laser right into Megan’s womb, where they re-arranged some of the blood vessels using a laser beam shot from inside the needle.

When Wayne saw the size of the camera, and the laser, and the babies in the womb, he couldn’t believe his own eyes. How could something so small be so amazingly important? More than that, how could something that little do anything worth doing?

I’m happy to tell you that the surgery was a success and Megan was able to leave the hospital a few days later with nothing more than a band-aid on the outside and, more importantly, two increasingly healthy children on the inside. The babies were able to develop normally for another four weeks until she went into labor and delivered them last month – six weeks early.

Wayne got his tire repaired, and then he took his first step in learning the lessons of littleness by crossing the street and properly introducing himself to, and then thanking, his neighbor. And he has been in the neonatal intensive care unit every evening to hold his grandchildren. They are so little that he can easily hold one in each hand – or he would if the nurses would let him get away with it. For five weeks, he has marveled at their size and remembered how frightened he was the day of the procedure.

Of course, when he holds the children in the NICU, the nurses come by and offer comments about how big they are getting (which, of course, they are, compared to the other babies in that unit)… and when he shows photos to anyone at work, the constant comment is, “oooooh! Look how little!” (which, of course, they are, in comparison to everyone else’s grandchildren).

So these days, when he’s at work with his big equipment doing big jobs, Wayne Barker notices little things that are simply crucial. The other day, he observed how a tiny sliver of metal called a cotter pin that costs pennies and can be bent with his bare hands is absolutely essential to holding the bucket on his backhoe. He thought about it again while he fished around in his pocket for the key that started up the earth grader. Even in the hospital cafeteria, he noticed that he had a huge bowl of soup that was vastly improved by a few grains of salt.

Wayne isn’t at the hospital tonight, though. The babies are coming home on Monday, and all of these big thoughts about little things have brought Wayne to worship.

Here’s what I mean: for most of the past 33 years, Christmas has been BIG for Wayne and his family. He’s the guy who bought those giant stuffed bears. You couldn’t get into his living room once the tree was set up because he chose the biggest, fattest tree he could find. And when it came time for dinner, well, Wayne didn’t think it was worth eating if the turkey was less than 24 pounds.

And yet, this year, he can’t take himself away from the smallness of it all. Tonight, he is filling his heart, mind, and spirit with thoughts of littleness. Thoughts of one star, twinkling in the murky depths of space. One child, coming to reveal the whole heart of God to humanity. One candle, beating back the darkness in defiance of the drafts. One congregation, trying to live in ways that will change the world.

Up until now, Wayne Barker hasn’t had time for the littleness of Christmas. All of that has been nonsense to him – that is to say, it made no sense at all. And maybe, tonight, it still is nonsense.

But this is what he knows: that tonight, four miles away the heart of his heart is beating double time because something amazingly and improbably small had come in and changed reality.

And tonight, for either the first time or the hundredth time, he gets it. He understands what the Lord was saying to the prophet Zechariah all those years ago:

Then he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts… For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel… (Zechariah 4:6,10)

Although that’s an obscure book, it had always caught Wayne’s eye because Zerubbabel was a builder – and he took some grief from others on account of the fact that he seemed to always start slow and start small. But lately, it seemed to Wayne, that starting slow and starting small might just be the way that God likes to operate.

So tonight, Wayne is trying to get in touch with the littleness and the subtlety and even the weakness for which the Almighty seems to have an affinity. He’s lighting his candle, dusting off his hope, and trying to get ready for the changes that need to take place… in him… in his neighborhood… and in his world.

It’s a little thing. But maybe, just maybe, there’s no better time than Christmas for the little things.

Wishing you all the grace to find energy and devotion to learn the lessons of littleness in your particular corner of the world today.  May you be surprised by what is vulnerable or even weak in yourselves, and may be be an agent of grace in this world.

A Season of Joy

In Advent 2015, the folks at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights considered some of the characteristics of the God whom we worship.  On December 27, we ended that series with a celebration of the ways that the incarnation has changed our reality.  Our texts included Psalm 96 and Luke 2:1-14.

What, would you say, is the most popular Christmas song in these United States of America?

Well, I guess it depends on how you measure it. Time magazine searched every recording produced since 1978 and determined that Silent Night has been recorded 733 times in the past 37 years. According to the people at Spotify, however Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You is number one. If we shift our attention to Pandora, we learn that people in Pennsylvania listen to Christmas Canon as performed by The Trans-Siberian Orchestra more than any other holiday tune.

What is your favorite Christmas carol?

Why does it have that place in your heart?

Think about how we experience the music of this season. We sing it. We listen to it. We complain about it. It gets stuck in our heads. And then we listen to it some more, don’t we?

Allow me to suggest that we use the songs as an avenue for both memory and hope. For instance, when I hear or sing O Holy Night, I am taken back to the piano bench where I am trying to get my left hand to do what seemed so easy for Mrs. Sanner when she was sitting next to me. I’m about to give up, and I hear my mother from the kitchen call out, “Oh, David, that sounds beautiful! O Holy Night is my favorite.” I remember coming into this room as a young man and hearing Lois Peters sing it each year, and I think about the ways that Christmas in this place has shaped me. Christmas music is about memory, isn’t it?

But that song, of course, is not only about looking back. Remember that when we intone “chains shall he break, for the slave is his brother and in his name all oppression shall cease”, the only thing we are remembering is that we’ve prayed this prayer for a long time. The song points us to that which is still yet to come. Christmas music is about hope, too. That’s why we have to sing it over and over again.

There was no such thing as iTunes or YouTube when it was written, but the song that you heard as Psalm 96 has been high in the rotation list for centuries.

David Bearing the Ark of Testament into Jerusalem Domenico Gargiulo, 1609-1675

David Bearing the Ark of Testament into Jerusalem Domenico Gargiulo, 1609-1675

So far as we can tell, it was first written, or at least popularized, when David had Asaph and the band play it as the Ark of the Covenant was brought into Jerusalem. For years, this sacred piece of Israel’s heritage had been where it was not supposed to be – first in the hands of their Philistine oppressors and then in a remote village, apparently languishing in a forgotten field. These lyrics first appear in I Chronicles 16, and they sure make sense in that context. Finally, it would seem that the Philistine threat that had plagued the nation for generations had been dealt with. National security was, at least for the time being, not a problem in Israel.

More than that, the people had a king. David is doing all of the things that the best kings do, and people are sensing God’s blessing in the midst of that. In addition, the capital city has been established, and Israel has a real identity. When this song is written, we sense that the people really believe that they belong to God and that God will keep his promises to them.

Not surprisingly, then, these words find their way into the book of Psalms – those tunes that were sung over and over again as the people worshiped YHWH in Jerusalem and throughout the nation. When the people rose up and sang Number 96, they remembered all that was good on that day when the Ark was restored – and they celebrated new experiences of God’s faithfulness:

Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations,  ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;  bring an offering and come into his courts.

Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth.

Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns.”

The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.

The Psalm refers to a specific incident, to be sure, but also maintains an awareness of God’s continuing presence and the hope that God will deepen that presence in the days to come.

Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,  he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness.

The song says clearly that God “comes”. Not, “came”. Not, “will come”. “He comes to judge the earth…” God’s intentions, say this beloved song, are to restore what has been ruined; to establish justice where that is lacking, and to bring order where there is chaos.

And because this Psalm is so clear about the understanding of God as one who comes, it has become a favorite among Christians, particularly on Christmas Eve or Christmas day. Looking back through the lens of time, we can remember not only the ways that the Philistines were pushed back and the throne of David was established, but also the ways that those intentions of God were more clearly revealed two thousand years ago in the event the theologians call “the incarnation”.

We remember that first-century Palestine was characterized by brutality, scarcity, inhospitality, and fear – and yet, he comes.

To King Herod in all his military might and wealth and power – he comes.

To those wise men in their towers, studying the mysteries of the ages from afar – he comes.

To homeless foreigners who have been told time and time again that there is no place for them in this town, in this city, in this part of the world – he comes.

To poor shepherds whose difficult labor mostly increases the wealth of others while not doing much for their own security – he comes.

For all of creation, in fact, He comes. He did come. He does come. He is coming. He comes.

And because he comes, we respond in joy.

Some of that joy is involuntary. According to the Psalm, the creation itself is so taken with the notion of justice being restored that the fields are jubilant and the trees are singing. And those of us with some greater level of awareness are invited to worship in joy and thanksgiving because we love and serve a God who comes.

IncarnationWe see that joy in the story that comes out of Bethlehem, where it seems as though everyone gets in on the invitation to share in what God is doing. The Angels, the shepherds, the holy family, and the whole community is blessed by the willingness of God to participate in the restoration of Creation.

On this, the last Sunday of 2015, I will remind you, dear friends, that while brutality, scarcity, inhospitality, and fear are very much with us, they belong to the old order. These scourges, and those who inflict them, are derivatives from a world that does not know anything of the gentle, abundant, gracious and peaceful welcome of the savior.

I know, I know – you say to me that everywhere you look, you see these things. But I am reminding you that they are not of God and they will not last. As we end this year, let us remember that the situation in which we find ourselves or even the situation in which we are willing to place our neighbors is not congruent with the scripture or God’s eternal intentions.

Please hear me: I am not minimizing the horrors of brutality, scarcity, inhospitality, and fear. Those giants are every bit as frightening as were the Philistines, or King Herod, or any other power that attempted to take the place of the One who comes. So remember, as this year ends, so they, too, will end.

And as the new year will dawn before we are together next, let me remind you of the invitation you have received to participate in the order which is to come. Asaph and his band sung a version of it when the Ark was restored. David and his congregation reminded themselves of it time and time again. The Angels spent all night teaching it to the shepherds, who couldn’t wait to spread the news to anyone who would hear.

And now it’s our turn. Your call this day, beloved, is to be a herald. A living reminder that what is is not all that there is, and that we serve a God who comes. Let me encourage you to live your life as a testimony to the truth of which the Angels sang – the truth that brutality, scarcity, inhospitality, and fear belong to yesterday, not to tomorrow. Sing about the generous grace that has come, is coming, and is yours to share right now. Thanks be to God, who comes to judge the earth in righteousness and the peoples in faithfulness. Let that be the tune that is stuck in your heads in 2016! Amen.

The Day Aziz Learned to See (A Christmas Story)

Every year I write a story to tell the congregation during the Christmas Eve Candlight service.  Often times, it’s an angsty, middle-agedy, reflective piece.  As we have so many children in worship, though, I wanted to try to help the kids see Christmas through new eyes.  So here is the 2014 Christmas story, featuring a talking dog who, coincidentally, is just a bit angsty and reflective (hey, as the great theologian Popeye once said, “I yam what I yam…”

“It is a terrible thing to see and have no vision.”

(Helen Keller)

GraydogIf you saw Aziz, you would not think that he was a beautiful dog. He was about three feet high and covered with shaggy grey fur that grew longer each winter. He was nervous, and his ears were always alert, listening for sounds of danger or for a chance to get a treat from the shepherd boys who worked with him. His eyes – well, it was hard to see his eyes because they were hidden behind a tuft of gray. And, really, it didn’t matter very much because Aziz couldn’t see anyway.

When he was a puppy, Aziz could see fine. He used to love running through the pastures with the other dogs and the sheep, leaping over rocks and playing in the streams.   But all of that changed on the day the darkness came.

It was a bright, sunny, day, and Aziz was watching his father try to bring a few wandering lambs back to the flock. Suddenly, they heard a cry of panic and they saw Rachel, a lamb that was about Aziz’s age, being carried off by a lion! While the other sheep ran, panicked, Aziz’s father went straight for the lion. It was terrible. There was a lot of barking and roaring and snarling and fighting. Aziz watched his father go after the lion again and again until the lion dropped Rachel. But when the lion released the lamb, it attacked the dog – and it held Aziz’s father by the throat!

Even though he was only a puppy, Aziz knew that he had to do something – and so he dove towards the lion, trying to help his father. The lion hit the puppy with a big paw – right in the head – and sent him flying. Everything got dark for Aziz right then.

All of the noise attracted the shepherds, who came and threw rocks at the lion and chased it until it went away. But when it was all over, Aziz’s father was dead and Rachel, the little lamb, was missing a leg. And when Aziz woke up, he couldn’t see anything at all.

For Aziz and for Rachel, it was the worst day of their lives. Aziz was lonely after his father died, and Rachel had to learn how to walk with only three legs. You might not be surprised to know that as they grew up together, Rachel the lamb and Aziz the dog turned out to be best friends. Everyone thought it was a good match – the three-legged sheep and the blind dog. The rest of the flock helped them, and the shepherds seemed to take extra care as well, making sure that both Rachel and Aziz were close by.

One day, they were just laying in the hot sun and Rachel was telling Aziz about the bird that she had just seen. It was beautiful, she said: the wings were striped black and white, and the head was a brownish color with a fancy kind of a crown on top. It had been flying through the field looking for bugs to eat.

Hoopoe“Oh, that sounds wonderful,” said Aziz. “I’m glad you told me about it, but I wish that I could have seen it.” He sighed heavily.

It was quiet for a while, and then Rachel asked, “Does it hurt?”

“Does what hurt?”

“Does ‘blind’ hurt? I mean, inside your head – does it hurt when you can’t see?”

Aziz thought about it for a while, and then he said, “I – I don’t think so… No, it doesn’t really hurt. Sometimes my face feels, well, tired, I guess. And sometimes I get scared when I hear something I can’t see. But it doesn’t hurt.”

Rachel nudged a little closer to her friend. He liked having her near. He felt that her face was getting really close to his. He could hear her gentle breathing.

She asked, “Are there marks? I mean, on your eyes?”

Aziz shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I really don’t remember anything at all after…after that day. I just remember that it got dark – very dark. And sad.”

Even though it was quite warm, the sheep climbed even closer to the dog, and Aziz could feel her breath on his nose. She was quiet for a moment, and then spoke again. “Can I look?”

The dog, without thinking about it, said, “Sure. But you have to promise to tell me what you see.”

So Rachel the sheep sat back and using her one good front leg, she pushed aside the hair that covered Aziz’s face. She looked intently for a while, and then she said, “OK, now open your eyes so I can see them.”

Aziz shook his head and said, “They are open.”

“No, they’re not!”

“YES, they are!”

Rachel put her foot back on the dog’s forehead and said, “You asked me to tell you what I see, and I’m telling you that your eyes are closed! Just open them!”

Aziz sounded really angry and he shouted, “I can’t open them! I can’t see anything!”

Rachel tried to use her front foot to open one of the dog’s eyes, but you know that sheep don’t really have very good fingers for that kind of thing. She couldn’t really do much to try to open the eye, but she tried. It looked like one of the eyelids moved a little bit.

For Aziz, there was one tiny pinprick of light. It was a burning, white, hot feeling inside of his head.

“AHHHHHH!” The dog yelped in pain. “Stop! It hurts! It hurts!”

Rachel moved away very quickly. For a while, Aziz just sat there, crying. Rachel said, “I am sorry for hurting you. I just want you to see what I see.”

Aziz sniffled and said, angrily, “Well, you know that I can’t see. Just stop.” But what Aziz did not say to Rachel was that he did see the bright light, but that when he saw the light, he also remembered the bright sun on the day that his father died. And so he didn’t say anything, because the hurt inside was too deep.

They didn’t say anything else that day, and for the next few weeks, everything was back to normal. The winter was coming and the days were shorter, but Rachel and Aziz did what they always did – Rachel would tell stories about what she saw, Aziz would tell jokes, and they would both stay pretty close to the shepherds.

One night, Aziz woke up to the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. It was like he walked into a whole house that was made of sound. It was singing – beautiful, amazing, wonderful singing!

angels“Rachel! Rachel! RACHEL!” he said. “What’s happening? What is it?”

The sheep was whispering. “Oh, Aziz! They are angels, and they are beautiful. Look at them! Open your eyes and look!”

Aziz said quickly, “I can’t see. You know that.”

Rachel replied, “I think you won’t see. Open your eyes, quickly! They are leaving!”

Aziz said “Just tell me what they look like! I can’t see.”

But it was too late. Aziz knew it when the music stopped and he heard the shepherds talking excitedly. It sounded like they were getting ready for a trip.

And that’s what happened! The shepherds left one young boy to watch most of the sheep, but they gathered up Rachel and a few of the others, along with Aziz, and went down the road to the town of Bethlehem. Aziz and Rachel knew that it had something to do with the angels, but they were not sure exactly what.

When they got to Bethlehem, they came into a stable, and the shepherds began talking with a man and a woman. Aziz’s nose was working wonderfully, and he could smell that something important had just happened. He thought he smelled a new baby – right there in the stable!

Aziz nosed around and found the woman, who was sitting on a bed of straw. She was really tired. The men kept talking, but she fell asleep.

Aziz had never, ever, felt happier in his entire life. He lay there next to the woman and his heart was beating and his tail was thumping and he was warm and dry and safe and sound and he just felt wonderful laying in the hay next to Mary. And then, he heard the baby start to cry. The baby’s mother was so tired that she took her baby, wrapped in a blanket, and held him between herself and  Aziz’s soft furry coat, saying,  “Here, little one. This old dog is warm and happy. Maybe the way he wags his tail will rock us both to sleep.”

The next thing he knew, Aziz was touching the baby. And everything was so quiet. He really, really, wanted to know what the baby looked like – but Rachel was all the way across the stable, and it was so quiet. He thought to himself, “If only I could see! What would he look like?”

Then he thought, “What if I can see?” But he was afraid to try, because he thought it might hurt again. But he was so happy that he didn’t think that the hurt could touch him there.

So right then, in that stable, with a baby named Jesus leaning against him, Aziz opened one eye very carefully. And then he opened the other.

Do you know what he saw?

jesus-birth-nativity-star-outside-bethlehem-stableThe first thing that he saw was not the baby or his mother. The first thing that he saw was the brightness of the night – there was a star shining into the stable that was brighter than any star anyone had ever seen. And because the star was so bright, Aziz could see everything. He saw the baby. He saw the mother. He saw the shepherds. And across the stable, he saw a three-legged sheep that he knew was his friend, Rachel. In the light of that star, Aziz learned how to see again.

A couple of hours later, the shepherds and the man said good-bye to each other and the animals followed the shepherds back to the fields. Rachel came over to help Aziz, since she thought he was unable to see. The dog surprised his friend by running to her and licking her face again and again and again. “It’s me, Rachel. It’s Aziz! And I can see! I can see you! I saw the stable! I saw the baby! I saw the star!”

The two friends went with the shepherds back to the fields, and they stayed up all night talking and looking in the light from that star.

The next day, the black and white and brown bird flew past again, and Rachel began to tell Aziz about it but he interrupted her: “I know! I know! It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

Just then, Aziz’s keen ears heard a rustle in the grass a few feet away. He turned, and there in front of him was a lion! And it was heading right towards Rachel!

The first thing Aziz did was close his eyes and hide in the darkness. And then he heard his friend cry out, “Help!”

And so that day, Aziz opened his eyes and he ran right at the lion and he barked and barked and barked as loudly as he could. And because he wasn’t a puppy anymore, but he was big and fierce-looking, the lion stopped, and roared.

Aziz got closer and closer to the lion, barking as loudly as he could. The lion roared, and charged right at Aziz and Rachel – and then the lion fell over, dead. Aziz turned around and there was a shepherd boy, holding a slingshot. He had killed the lion and saved the sheep and the dog.

Aziz and Rachel lived a long, long time after that, but they never heard anything more powerful than the song of the angels, and they never saw anything more beautiful than the baby, laying in the manger in the starlight. And Aziz and Rachel told their children and their grandchildren about how they were part of the first Christmas ever.

Following are the comments I made after we lit our candles and sang “Silent Night”:

You know the light in which an object is viewed affects the way that we are able to see that thing. When I was young, all of my friends had “black lights” with special posters that looked one way most of the time, but really awesome when viewed with the special bulb. Walking on the beach by moonlight is different than going at noon. You know that about light.

And you know that light can be very attractive. When you’re out walking in the woods and you see a campfire, it attracts you. It calls you in, unless there is a six-year old holding a flashlight at the campfire, in which case, light that is on you becomes light that is at you, and you are driven away.  

You may know that looking at you in this light is the highlight of my year. I don’t necessarily mean the warmth of the candlelight, although there is something to be said for that. But what I’m really talking about is the light of Christ. We have just stood and as gently, as humbly, as meekly as possible, and said the truest thing any crowd has ever said: “Christ the savior is born”. Well, we didn’t actually say it. We sang it. We didn’t shout it: we proclaimed it.

There is a gentleness in the light of Christ that is always on you but never at you. For four or five minutes out of the year, we stand in this light and we look at each other in it. I wish I had a giant mirror so that you could see yourself in this light. More than that, I wish that I was better at seeing you in this light on Monday afternoons or Thursday evenings. I wish we could learn how to see ourselves in this light all the time. I wish we could learn how to see those we love in this light all the time. I wish we could learn how to see those with whom we disagree in this light. I wish we could learn how to see those we call “other” in this light.

One day, pray God, we will.

Until then, we gather here for reminders about how beautiful this light can be, and how much better we can see because of it. And we hope. And we worship. And we proclaim: Christ the savior is born. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Fugitive Gospel

The lectionary for December 29 included a vivid description of the horrors that faced the Holy Family in the months following the nativity.  Matthew 2:13-23 provides a narration of the flight into Egypt and the resettlement at Nazareth.  This message was preached to the good people of  The Trinity Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE.

What kind of Christmas cards are you apt to select for your seasonal greetings?  Do you send out the understated, serious card that can be received by folks of many (or even no) faith – you know, the wintry scenes or nature photos that say “Happy Holidays”?  Do you go for the cute cards – the “precious moments” nativities, or the cartoon Santas?  Maybe you like the funny cards, or the more personal cards that include your own photograph.  And, since we’re in church, I would bet that more than a few of you select a religious card, perhaps with a painting of the wise men or shepherds gathered around the manger, reminding us that “Jesus is the reason for the season” or inviting us to sing “Gloria in excelsis deo”.  Do you have a favorite?

Rest on the Flight Into Egypt (Luc-Oliver Merson, 1880)

No matter how you may have answered that, my hunch is that there are some things that you’ve never seen on a Christmas card.  I don’t believe that Hallmark or American Greetings sell many cards that feature an image of the Holy Family sneaking into Egypt as they run away from King Herod, looking tired and hungry and decidedly un-holy as they fear for their lives and wonder about the terror that they left behind in Bethlehem.  I’ve never seen a Christmas card featuring Joseph and Mary looking at real estate in Nazareth, a backwoods town some 65 miles – several days on foot – away from Jerusalem.  They are relocating, not because of a boom in Joseph’s carpentry business, but because they are afraid of Herod’s son, Archelaus – and what he might do to them if he finds out who Jesus really is.  And what about a lovely Christmas greeting featuring the mothers of Bethlehem holding their dead babies after Herod’s goons have gone through the village killing anything that looked to be male and less than three years old?  They don’t have a “precious moments” scene for that, I don’t think.

But aren’t those things a part of the Christmas story?  Matthew doesn’t tell us much at all about the birth of Jesus – we get a family tree, the story of Joseph’s dream, the wise men, the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents, and then the move to Nazareth.  That’s all Matthew tells us about the birth and childhood of Jesus – and most of it doesn’t get so much as a mention in our traditional Christmas celebration.

I’ve thought a lot about this part of the story as I have wandered through Christmas this year.  And as I have thought, I have a lot of questions – and I’d like to share a few of them with you this morning.

First, let me ask you this: when Joseph took Mary and Jesus and ran into Egypt, was he a “refugee” or a “fugitive”?  A refugee is defined as “a person who flees for refuge or safety, esp. to a foreign country, as in time of political upheaval, war, etc.”.  A fugitive is “a person who flees; especially: a person who flees one jurisdiction (as a state) for another in order to elude law enforcement personnel”.  Both come from the same word – the French fugere: “to flee”.

A refugee – a poor person seeking safe harbor.  Or a fugitive – a menace to society running from the law.  Which of those words best describe Joseph, Mary, and Jesus?

I would suppose that it depends on who you ask, doesn’t it?  I mean, because Jesus played for our team (or, more appropriately, I suppose, we should say that because we play for Jesus’ team), it’s easy for us to see the holy family as refugees – vulnerable and weak, fleeing one dangerous spot and ending up somewhere else while life is tenuous and survival is difficult.

But if you were to ask Herod’s soldiers, then those would be three of Jerusalem’s “most wanted”, right?  Fugitives who pose a threat to the status quo, and thus the safety and security of the Empire. The family seems to be an ordinary group, but they must be stopped by any means necessary.

Refugees?  Or Fugitives?  It depends on your perspective, doesn’t it?

Political cartoon by Art Young depicting Jesus on a “wanted-poster”. First published in “The Masses” in 1917.

Here’s another question that crossed my mind this week:  what makes me so different from Herod?  I mean, he’s the guy that everybody loves to hate in this story – especially everyone who’s on our team.  But what makes me all that different from him?

Like Herod, there are times when I find myself so eager to protect what I think of as “mine” that I push others away.  To be sure, I don’t usually resort to a gang of thugs on horseback riding over to your house to wipe out you and your family, but there are a lot of times when I find myself afraid of losing power and control, and my response to that is too often one of anger or insecurity.  Herod woke up every day and asked himself a simple question: to what extent will I use the power that I have to protect myself and my own interests?

Isn’t that a question that I ask myself every day?  One time I needed a pair of shoes.  I ran up to K-mart and found a pair of sneakers that was only $15.  Such a deal! I brought them home and remarked on the cost to Ariel, who said, “that’s probably because they were made by a six year old in the developing world, Dad.”  Were they?  I don’t know.  But surely some of the “good deals” that I got this past holiday season were there because somehow, my economic interest was more important than someone else’s right to food, housing, or safety.

Unlike Herod, I’m not the king of anything.  But like Herod, I have a lot of power.  And I like it.  And I use it.  What makes me so different from him?

Another question, along the same lines, but in a decidedly different direction:  What makes me so different from Joseph?  I mean, I hold onto a promise I’ve received from God.  No, I haven’t seen any angels, or had dramatic awakenings in the middle of the night, but don’t I know the same promise that he did?  Am I willing to trust God’s leading enough to follow a dream, even if it means going against the culture in which I live?

Joseph was willing to live on the margins of his world – to make due with less – because he believed that the things that God was doing were even more amazing than his dreams.  He left his home and his family and shouldered a set of responsibilities that were incredible because he thought that in some way he could be a part of the big, new thing that God was doing.  And every day, Joseph woke up and asked himself, “How am living into God’s promise, even in the midst of Herod’s world?  Isn’t that a question I could ask myself?

What makes me so different from Joseph?

To what extent will I use my power and privilege to protect my own interests?  How am I living into God’s promises in Herod’s world?

As we walk through these scriptures and consider questions like these this morning, what can we “take away” for our lives this week?   Perhaps I can remind you of three things this morning.

As the new year dawns, and as the political landscapes in our nation and world continue to evolve, let me remind you to be very suspicious about any claims that a nation, a military power, or a political movement might make about bringing in Christ’s kingdom.  History shows us that many, many times people have equated such power with Jesus, and almost every time, the church has lived to regret that – when we look back at Constantine’s efforts to legislate Christianity, or the crusades, or the “conversions” of many of the native American peoples to Christianity, almost always it seems as though the strategies used, the motives employed, and the end results were not exactly in line with what we know about the one who was born in a manger in Bethlehem. We pray for our leaders and hope that they are open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, but we affirm that God, not any human being, rules the earth.  We do not do well when we confuse our political movements with God’s presence on the earth.  So pray for, and support our leaders – but remember that these men and women, as much as anyone, face the temptations that Herod faced every single day.

As you think about the possibilities and the challenges that face you, personally, in the year to come – what you will save, spend, or give; how you will use your time; the places where you will invest your energy – are you acting because you are afraid of losing what is yours?  Or are you following the promise and believing the dream?  Let me remind you that you, no less than Joseph and Mary, have heard the promise of God’s salvation.  That you, no less than they, have the chance each and every day to make decisions that will put you in a position where you can pursue a life of grace and peace.  That today, and tomorrow, and the next day, you will face a hundred choices about what to do with your money, your time, and your energy.  Will you make those choices remembering that a light shone over Bethlehem, and that one shines in your heart as well?  You may be afraid – our brother Joseph was afraid of Archelaus, and settled in Nazareth as a result.  But will the fear and uncertainty that may lie in 2014 drive you to behave in ways that are selfish and greedy?  Or will the awareness of life in an uncertain world encourage you to be more generous and flexible as you look around you?

Establishing Partnership at the 2013 General Assembly of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, with Revs. Tut Kony and Moses Gatkouth

Establishing Partnership at the 2013 General Assembly of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, with Revs. Tut Kony and Moses Gatkouth

And lastly, let me remind and encourage you to spend time with the people who are “on the run” in our world today.  At this time last year, I was preparing for a visit to Africa, where we began the Presbyterian Church USA’s first “Tripartite International Partnership” by linking with the church in Malawi and South Sudan.  There was joy and hope as a team of folk from Malawi and Pittsburgh visited the world’s youngest nation and preached in her churches.  This month, I am frantically scouring my emails, looking to see whether our friends in South Sudan are alive or dead in the wake of violence there.  There are, by some accounts, more than 42 million refugees in our world today – people who do not have a home, whose kids are not in good, safe schools; people who may or may not have access to safe water, sewage, or other fundamental needs. We gather this morning to worship a savior whose first few years included living as a refugee in another country and who later became an “internally displaced person” because of the threat to his life.  And as we gather to worship the baby that Herod sought to kill – can you make room in your life this year to spend some time with the lost, the hungry, the frightened, or the vulnerable?  You don’t have to go to a camp in Palestine or South Sudan to meet someone who has a hard time seeing the light of Bethlehem; you don’t have to travel with Doctors Without Borders to encounter someone for whom the dream of Christmas – the hope of God with us – is just that – a dream.  A fuzzy, cloudy, dream.  Will you help someone else to glimpse that dream this year?

I’d like to close by sharing a brief meditation by Howard Thurman, entitled “The Work of Christmas”.  I share it with you in the hopes that as you plan your task of packing up the decorations, you won’t think that the work of Christmas has ended:

When the song of the angels is stilled, 


When the star in the sky is gone, 


When the kings and princes are home, 


When the shepherds are back with their flock, 


The work of Christmas begins: 


To find the lost, 


To heal the broken, 


To feed the hungry, 


To release the prisoner, 


To rebuild the nations, 


To bring peace among brothers, 


To make music in the heart.

All right, folks, Christmas is just about over.  Let’s get to work.  Amen.

Pastor Tony Gets Back on Track

It is my custom to write an original short story each year and tell it to the good people of Crafton Heights on Christmas Eve.  My hope is that in the hearing of my story, The Story will emerge a little more clearly.  The Story, of course can be found in John 1:1-14 and other places in Scripture.  If you like this story, you may be interested in I Will Hold My Candle & Other Stories for Christmas, a compilation of stories from the past couple of decades.  You can learn more about that volume by clicking here or just contacting me.  I would suggest that you find a hot beverage and a friend, and read this aloud.  Merry Christmas.

Cheryl Donaldson was, for one of the few times in her life, speechless.  She looked at her father, who sat awkwardly on the couch pretending to study a fascinating stain in the carpet near his left foot.  After a few moments, she broke the silence.

“How can that possibly be, Dad?  You have never been on a train?  You?  That is all you ever do!”

As Tony continued to study the carpet as if it held the secret to a long and happy life, Cheryl’s mind flashed back to the home on 33rd Street in the little town of Beaver Falls – the home in which she had grown up, and the home which at this moment was a veritable HO Gauge metropolis.  The man lived and breathed model railroading, and here he was saying he’d never been on a train?  It was incomprehensible.

When she was just a kid, Cheryl’s dad had taken her younger brother, Phil, into Pittsburgh to do some Christmas shopping.  While there, the two visited the old Buhl Planetarium and saw the miniature railroad village they always set out.  That same year, Phil’s Christmas present was a simple oval track layout and a couple of buildings from a town called “Plasticville”.  For the next three years, it was a little tradition that gradually escalated, as Tony bought Phil a couple of new buildings, or a new locomotive, or some other improvement to the 4 x 8 layout.

But after the third year, things changed dramatically.  That May, Phil was struck and killed by a drunk driver as he was riding his bike home from ball practice.  At Christmas, Cheryl was surprised to discover that even though she had never been all that interested in the goings-on in Plasticville, she had somehow become the heiress of that tradition.  She was glad for the attention from her father, and she went along, although she realized soon that it was never really about her.

A couple of years later, the 4×8 layout grew to become 6×12.  When she left for college in Washington, DC, her bedroom was officially designated as the train room. Tony didn’t like working on the layouts down in the cellar, and besides, it gave him something to do on his day off year-round.

Not long after his wife died of breast cancer, Tony drew the attention of the folks who were curating the train exhibit down in Pittsburgh when he actually cut a couple of holes in the walls between Cheryl’s and Phil’s old rooms.  In so doing, he was able to construct tunnels that would connect two increasingly elaborate layouts in the separate rooms.  Cheryl’s room remained the traditional winter scene, whereas Phil’s became a testimony to the splendors of rural life in the summer.  The folks from Buhl, and later the Carnegie Science Center, made several trips to the little house on 33rd Street in order to see how Tony managed the connections for such a project.

She looked at her father, who still hadn’t said a word, and remembered that the only time he had ever raised his voice to her was just three years ago, when in an effort to help bring him into the new millennium she had replaced all of his incandescent light bulbs with those new compact florescent bulbs that were supposed to save so much energy.  When Tony went in to work on the layout, he just about exploded.  He made her come into the room and listen to him talk about the ways that these new bulbs threw off his color scheme so completely that he couldn’t think of anything else.  He complained until she finally went and dug all the old ones out of the garbage and replaced them.  That year for Christmas, she gave her father an entire case of 75 watt incandescent bulbs just so he could be sure that the sun in Plasticville was always glowing predictably.

She knew that this was a difficult year for Tony.  Three months ago, he had finally retired from his pastorate at the church.  Or, to be more precise, the church had retired from Tony.  It simply slipped away, and when they had fewer than fifteen folks showing up on most Sundays, the denomination encouraged them to think about consolidating with another congregation.  Tony found himself a sixty-six year-old man who had lived in the same home for twenty-nine years…but unable to participate deeply in the life of the community to which he’d devoted three decades.  They decided that he would spend the Christmas holiday in Cheryl’s home in Prince Georges County, MD.  She wanted him to see his grandkids in the Christmas pageant and he didn’t have anywhere else to go, so that about settled it.

Cheryl had just asked her father if he’d be willing to take an older man from her own church, Mr. Belser, into Washington DC to see about straightening out a question with the Veteran’s Administration about his benefits.  Mr. Belser knew his way around all right, but he had become dependent on oxygen, and he needed a second set of hands to help him handle the tanks.  Cheryl loved Mr. Belser, and she thought that her dad would jump at the chance to help him out, particularly since they’d be taking the Metro into the District.

Only now, the strongest man she had ever known sat on her sofa with a look of terror in his eyes.  His last words to her had been, “I’m sorry, Cher, but I can’t do that.  I’ve never been on a train before.  I don’t know how.”

Finally, she looked at her father, put the route map in his hands, and said, “You’ll do fine, Dad.  Thousands of people do this every day.  I promised Mr. Belser we’d do it, and I’ve got get the boys ready for the pageant at Church.  You’re on.  Now go get some rest, Pops.”

Later that night, a sixty-six year-old man lay wide-awake in bed.  He was too scared to sleep.  He was too excited to sleep.

Now know this, my friends, about Pastor Tony.  He knew more about the railroad than anyone he knew.  But he didn’t really know trains at all.  What I mean by that is that he could read all of the signal lights, and he knew the various codes for each blast of the locomotive’s horn.  Not only did he own a copy of the Northeast Operating Rules Advisory Committee rulebook on train movement and protocol, he had read it.  Twice.  He knew the slang that trainmen used.  And, as I’ve previously noted, he had forgotten more about model railroading than most people will ever know.  He knew railroads.

But he didn’t know trains.  He had never sat on the cracked vinyl and felt the shudder of the airbrakes approaching a station.  He could not anticipate the peculiar combination of odors brought about by industrial lubricants, electric transformers, and the commuting public.  He had never sat in a rolling passenger car filled with strangers glued to their Kindles or working their smart phones, all the while tethered to their iPods in a desperate attempt to avoid human interaction.  Pastor Tony, in spite of the hundreds of feet of track he’d laid in a dozen different Plasticvilles, had never felt the clatter of the rails deep in his bones.

But he would.  And the thought filled him with anticipation.  And with dread.

As it turned out, it went pretty well.  His daughter took him down to the Deanwood station on the orange line, and Belser was already there.  They headed to the elevated tracks and purchased their tickets, and there Pastor Tony confessed his anxiety to his traveling companion.  Belser thought it was a joke!  What a fuss!  He’d spent his whole career riding to work in trains, first in New York and then later in DC.  When Tony told him of his fascination with model railroads, Belser simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t get it.  I mean, no offense, but really – trains are not toys. They are for riding.  They are a way to connect with the real world.  I’ve always said, I learned more sitting on a train than I ever did watching that idiot box my grandkids always have on…”

And the adventure went off smoothly.  With Belser’s experience and Tony’s willingness to heft the oxygen tanks, they rode the Orange Line into L’Enfant Plaza and switched to the Green Line all the way up to the Georgia Avenue stop.  As Tony’s anxiety lessened, he was able to see what Belser was saying about the little universe of each railway car.  He watched the people and took in the sights and walked through the turnstiles and generally enjoyed himself.  They had such a good time, in fact, that after visiting the VA, they rode the Orange Line clear out to New Carrolton, where they sat for a while looking at the big Amtrak yards full of trains and people and their stories.

After his trip was finished, Pastor Tony sat in the third row of the little Methodist church there in Maryland and watched the Christmas pageant.  It hadn’t been going for but three or four minutes when the child assigned the role of the Angel Gabriel flubbed her reading badly.  Tony’s first thought was, “What kind of a yahoo is this pastor?  That’s why we don’t do Christmas pageants with our kids.  You can’t trust kids – they are late, or they forget, or even worse, they show up and they cry.”

So much of Tony’s life, to be honest, had been based on order and predictability.  That’s why he loved his train set at home so much – because he always knew what to expect there.  The lawns in Plasticville are always perfectly manicured.  The dogs never keep you awake with their barking.  The church parking lots are always full.  Gasoline is $129.9 down at the filling station.  In Plasticville, the death rate and the crime rate are zero.  There are no drunk drivers.  There are no accidents.  Plasticville is so reliable in so many ways.

But when you stop to think about it, as Pastor Tony did that very night, it’s not only the crime rate and the death rate that are zero.  In the whole history of Plasticville on 33rd Street in Beaver Falls, not a single person had ever been born.  No one ever graduated.  Nobody grew at all.  And while the passenger lines and freight cars ran faithfully and sometimes ceaselessly – not a soul ever boarded or disembarked from those trains.

And as Pastor Tony watched his grandson giggle with the other shepherds when they had to say, “Hail to you, O Virgin fair”, it hit him – this was what made the birth of Christ so important.

His whole adult life he had talked and taught about the incarnation – about the idea that God became a human.  And yet his concept of God had been so limited.  In Pastor Tony’s mind, God hovered above the earth in the same way that Tony doted on Plasticville – manipulating the environment and setting up pretty displays.  But if the incarnation means anything, thought Tony, it means that all of these things matter.  It means that somehow, the God who made us cares enough about us to come into the noisy and smelly and cluttered places of our own lives.  It means that God enters in, fully and completely.  And if that is true – and he believed it more that night than he ever had before – then it meant that God was not expecting Tony to be some perfect statue who kept it all together and remained unshaken.  No, the incarnation means that God expected Tony to grow in and through each step that each day brought him.  In Jesus Christ, God moved into our neighborhood in a way that Tony could never enter Plasticville…and because God was willing to risk doing that in Jesus, Tony was free to grow in ways that were impossible to the denizens of his bedroom empire.

By the time the three bathrobe-wearing wise men dropped off their improbable gifts to an increasingly antsy Joseph and a Mary who looked as though she really needed to find a bathroom in a hurry, Tony knew that he probably wouldn’t be spending a lot more time rearranging the landscapes back in Cheryl’s old bedroom.  He wasn’t sure, exactly what he would be doing – only that he would be doing – and not watching – for as many days as God gave to him.

For his entire adult life, Pastor Tony resisted change, seeing it only as loss.  When he got a glimpse of a God who was willing to transform and walk with him in the midst of anything, Tony’s fear of change diminished, and was replaced with a sense of trust and adventure.  Oh, he knew he hadn’t got it all figured out yet, but he also knew he was on the right track.

And that has made all the difference.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.